Well, we’ve had quite a run of high-profile breaches in information security over the last week or so. While each case carries its own tawdry details, I think it’s worth pausing to consider them as a group for just a moment, lumped into the general category of “snooping.”
To recap for the benefit of anyone not keeping score at home, the Justice Department has been snooping on the Associated Press, Bloomberg News has been snooping on Goldman Sachs, and the IRS has been snooping on the Tea Party.
There’s something missing in that mix, though. Did you notice?
There is nary a public consumer-oriented tech company in sight in any of these stories. No Facebook. No Google. No Amazon. No Apple. Not even a Yahoo.
I don’t point this out to claim that Silicon Valley’s practices regarding snooping in its various forms are or have been perfect. But I do think this recent flurry of blowups is an opportunity to reconsider the frequent coverage of “privacy” that we see see directed at consumer Internet companies. Perhaps the way that issue has been framed in the popular imagination the last few years is doing the public a bit of a disservice, discounting other online risks that should also be considered serious.
The more I look at it, I think “privacy” is actually too narrow of a frame to encompass all the potential downsides from the rise of ever more powerful computers and ever more pervasive connection to the Internet. What we really need is a series of conversations about several issues that are loosely related but also somewhat distinct from one another. Just for starters, there’s free speech, data security, business ethics in general, and checks and balances on governmental power, which is much more vast than anything a business can exercise.
It’s also worth remembering that non-tech companies collect a lot of data on people as well, sometimes with more haphazard data practices precisely because they don’t have the expertise that tech companies do. Banks. Insurers. Airlines. For-profit education providers. Brick-and-mortar retailers with ancient computers they maintain like old manual cash registers. How does the information you share with these entities compare to what you give to Facebook?
Finally, as important as it is to point out risk factors, we should also focus more keenly on actual harm when we talk about any form of online snooping. Otherwise it’s too easy to veer into paranoia and miss out on the good aspects of all the amazing technology now at our fingertips.
There is actual harm in every one of those recent stories I mentioned up top in this post. By contrast, you know where there isn’t any? How about in all the preemptive hand-wringing over Google Glass. The new wearable, camera-equipped device is a prototype in the hands of only a few thousand people so far.
Maybe we should all just wait a little while and see how the Glass launch goes before freaking out about it. In the meantime, there are forms of snooping that we can be certain are much more worthy of the time and attention.
I love this recent Wired story on a much-overlooked issue: Whether and how tech companies stick up for their users’ rights, especially in the face of government demands.
Specifically, Wired gives Twitter props on its successful challenge of the feds’ recent request for user data they claim relates to their WikiLeaks investigation. The story also runs through the history of a few cases involving other biggies like Microsft, Yahoo, and AOL. (Sorry, no Facebook mentions, good or bad.)
Definitely worth a look if you’re interested in protecting your online privacy, as we all should be. I don’t advocate paranoia on this sort of stuff, but I do believe people should at least be aware of their favorite sites’ ground rules, both explicit and implicit.