How Is What the NSA Does So Different From What Facebook Does?

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 28 2013 5:13 PM

How Is What the NSA Does So Different From What Facebook Does?

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Is the NSA that different from Facebook in its attitudes toward U.S. citizens' privacy?

Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Matthew Yglesias is on vacation.

Europe isn’t happy with the U.S. at the moment. The National Security Agency has seen to that. Actually, the anger stretches farther than Europe: Brazil and Mexico have made their displeasure known, and the list of peeved countries will surely grow; as the Guardian reported late last week, the NSA monitored the calls of some 35 world leaders after the U.S. handed over the contacts. Notably, German chancellor Angela Merkel isn’t happy that the U.S. was monitoring her personal phone calls as far back as 2002. From the more citizen-centric perspective, Spain is the latest to weigh in—unhappily—based on allegations that the NSA tracked some 60 million calls in the country in the space of a month.

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The cascading revelations have put American statecraft to the test. But there could also be economic fallout. Brazil is not pleased that the U.S. has been spying on its president, Dilma Rousseff, and reportedly responded to the news by pulling the plug on Brazil’s $4 billion purchase of arms from Boeing. Administration officials have been quick to downplay the economic consequences of its surveillance; the Brazilian government can certainly vote with its pocketbook, but ordinary Brazilians will probably still login to Facebook and Google, no matter how annoyed they are that the U.S. has been watching.

Why is that? Basically, we don’t like it when the government—ours or other people’s—collects our data for national-security purposes, but we’re more or less cool with private companies collecting our data for revenue purposes. What’s even more incongruous is that much of the information that the NSA collects about us is from the very same private companies that we’re entrusted with our online selves. Data-sharing between private companies: A-OK. Data-sharing between a private company and the government: creepy.

Sure, we willingly offer up our data when we use Facebook, Google, or any other similar site or service. But the bigger issue might be that we simply don’t know—or choose not to know, by not reading or remembering the terms and conditions—what’s being collected, as if we’re waiting around for the Edward Snowden of Facebook to go rogue and tell us. NPR’s Larry Abramson recently hired MIT Media Lab professor Cesar Hidalgo to use the program he created, Immersion, to mine Abramson’s personal Gmail account. Even without reading the actual contents—simply by parsing the metadata—a startling amount of information could be gathered. “Like a fortune teller, [Hidalgo] could immediately ferret out my closest relationships,” Abramson reported. Then, of course, there’s Facebook. Today, Leo Mirani of Quartz had a piece demonstrating “the value of what the American security establishment reassures us is ‘just metadata’ and revealing Facebook’s baroque privacy settings as the faith-based garments of the emperor’s new clothes.” There’s also Facebook’s facial recognition technology, which means that the company doesn’t even really need you to tag photos—it’s already got you covered.

None of this is new, but all of it has fresh resonance with the ongoing NSA revelations in showing a stark disconnect of anger. If the government collects our data to stay secure, it’s Orwellian. If a private company does it to make money, meh, we keep tagging and liking—and that’s great news for their bottom line. Google has argued that lawsuits against it for improperly scanning the contents of Gmail users’ emails should be dismissed because users know that their emails are being read by the company when they signed up for the email service. The real problem is that Google may be right.

Elliot Hannon is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.