The past year, something of a pointless debate has broken out – whether it’s the governments’ ridiculously-broad surveillance laws that pose the greatest threat to our future liberties, or if it’s the corporate gluttonous collectors of data like Google and Facebook that pose the greatest threat. It’s neither, because it’s both combined.
There’s a difference in culture on different sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, people tend to look to governments to protect them from abusive corporations; in the United States, people tend to look to corporations to protect them from an abusive government.
There’s certainly reason to seek protection from both these days. Let’s start with corporations.
It is said that a Visa executive – as in Visa, the credit card system – can predict your divorce one year ahead of yourself, based on your buying habits. There’s a recent telling anecdote where Target, the chain of stores, knew that a teenage woman was pregnant before her parents knew. If our purchase habits give away our life and privacy to this degree – imagine what Google or Facebook would be able to predict, if they wanted to?
Imagine you were diagnosed with a horrible and rare disease – like pancerebral aposcrupulosis, a normally rare disease with above-average occurrence in the political profession. Who would be the first to know about your rare and horrible disease after your doctor and yourself? Not your parents, not your children, not your spouse(s), not your close friends. Google would be the first to know, as you would immediately sit down to learn more about your diagnosis. (Unfortunately, in this particular degenerative disease, patients usually lack awareness of their condition.) Google’s ability tap into what we’re thinking about is probably the closest thing we’ve come yet to actual mind-reading.
Facebook isn’t a threat so much in terms of what you’re thinking, but in terms of who you know. Your patterns can be predicted from their patterns.
However, neither Google nor Facebook have any particular interest – nor indeed any ability – to knock down my door at dawn with a dozen agents with riot gear and automatic weapons just because they don’t like how I use their service. Fact is, they even have a strategic interest in preventing themselves from doing that to me because of my relationship with them: if that happens to one person, it’s a signal it can happen to any one of the billion people that use Facebook or the billion people that use Google (June 2011), and that would seriously harm the corporation in question.
So let’s instead jump to what governments can do. Many enough countries now have blanket wiretapping laws in place that let them wiretap all their own citizens’ net traffic, all other citizens’ traffic, or both. (This would have been absolutely unthinkable just a decade ago.) Additionally, the security services generally share raw data between them – so just because you’re not tapped in your home country, that doesn’t mean your local security service doesn’t have a copy of everything you’ve ever typed or sent online; it can be tapped anywhere.
Governments are not only able to knock down your door when you behave in a way they don’t approve of. They even like doing exactly that, and see it as their job. This is something of a problem, and quite a severe one.
The obvious next step to prevent the governments from this outrageous intrusion – mindreading followed by door-busting – is encryption. Encrypt everything and everywhere. Facebook seems to have gone encrypted (“https”) by default, as has Google (while I’m not sure of the pervasiveness of this default setting, both of them only talk to me over an encrypted connection). When you encrypt, the pancerebral aposcrupulosis of governments and lawmakers becomes significantly less damaging – almost ineffective and irrelevant.
So I argue that the danger lies in a combination of the two powers: the real danger lies in governments taking themselves the right to not wiretap you directly, but to forcibly extract data about you from Google and Facebook (and the likes).
When that happens, you have the closest thing we’ve come to mind-reading, combined with equally complete knowledge about what your friends, colleagues, and family think about, combined with the ability and desire to break down your door at dawn if you challenge the status quo too much.
To add insult to injury, governments have the ability to create this combination silently, denying Google, Facebook, and Twitter the ability to tell you that the data extraction has even taken place.
That’s what we should be worried about – not governments or corporations. It’s and.