Our Double Standard of Privacy

We're upset about the government tracking our communications, but we willingly hand over much more sensitive information to a handful of huge corporations

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Many people are very uncomfortable with the government knowing our phone records and getting access to our communications to people outside the country through the Internet. Even if we can’t put our finger exactly on what is troubling about all this, and even if we haven’t yet heard of specific abuses, it makes us feel vaguely uneasy. In a recent Pew/Washington Post poll, 41% of respondents said that it was “not acceptable” to track calls of millions of Americans and 52% said the government should not be able to monitor everyone’s email to prevent possible terrorism.

But for some reason, we seem to be perfectly fine handing over far more sensitive information to a handful of huge corporations. And what’s more, we know that they’re using just about every piece of data they’re collecting on us, often to build their mega-businesses.  Some are even selling it to others to use.

(MORE: Big Brother Is Watching You Swipe: The NSA’s Credit Card Data Grab)

Every time we communicate through the Internet or mobile, we’re giving our hosts—whether Yahoo or Google or Skype—a wealth of information about us.  We willingly let them know what we like and don’t like; who our friends are; what we buy; our credit card numbers (even sometimes our social security numbers); what some of our most private thoughts are – about one another and about political or world events; even what news reports we read.

Granted, we may be particularly upset about the recent revelations that the National Security Administration is tracking our communications because the government has the power to send the police to arrest us and put us in jail. Even Google doesn’t have that power. But for law-abiding citizens, the data that we willingly give to large corporations has far more consequences in the real world, driving everything from what ads will be targeted to us to whether we can borrow money.

(MORE: 7 Things to Know About the Government’s Secret Database of Telephone Data)

At the heart of our double standard is convenience.  If I give my credit card number to Amazon, I can buy all sorts of things with a single key stroke.  If I let Yahoo track my Internet usage, I can eliminate the need to put in my address every time I want something sent to me. And besides, what choice do we really have?  Even if we’re willing to read through those terms of service that go on for pages, it’s a take it or leave it deal.  There’s no button for “negotiate” between the one for “accept” and the one for “decline” at the bottom of the page.

At some point, we’re going to have to reconcile our very different attitudes towards privacy. But until then, maybe the government should try offering us something more than just security in exchange for our letting it collect information about our phone records.  Maybe free shipping?

VIDEO: The NSA PRISM Surveillance Program in One Minute

14 comments
JesseR.Rodriguez
JesseR.Rodriguez

Whether you believe in the program or not.  It is a violation of our 4th Amendment Right.  And it is not the policy that I have issue with, its the people carrying out the policy.  When you have an administration that has used other branches of government like the IRS and DOJ against its political opponents, you have to ask yourself if they aren't doing it with the Patriot Act as well.  You have to ask that question no matter what your beliefs are.

gysgt213
gysgt213

I agree with a lot of the comments already posted but I disagree that this started with us freely giving up our private info to private corporations and I don't think its a double standard.   Utility companies opened the door to this years ago by requiring our SSN to get service.  

sixtymile
sixtymile

SSN is just an identifier, not so different from your name and phone, basic info you would have to give to anyone to open an account -- which is exactly what utility service is: a monthly revolving credit account. How much service you use and what for... that is personal.

sixtymile
sixtymile

@gysgt213 You're right about that. The problem is that we handle SSNs as a 'secret identifier' (oxymoron). Other industrialized nations with a functional personal identity system that we don't have would make using a false identity a crime. And the banks would have to stop knowingly accepting a false identity for an account. Using your SSN regularly and openly would then expose false identity and (almost) end identity theft.

sixtymile
sixtymile

It comes down to the basic difference that we "give" our data to corporations to "get" something in return, and it's not clear what benefit we might get when government "takes" our data. When you consider the risks may outweigh the rewards, it seems more like a rational choice than illogical inconsistency.

ElaineMays
ElaineMays

@sixtymile We don't get anything when corporations collect data on us; they are the ones who get. 

sixtymile
sixtymile

@ElaineMays It seems obvious: if you don't buy any products or services then they have no data on you, when they track the numbers that you call, you "get" phone service.

schreiner.kyle
schreiner.kyle like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think the reason people are ok with giving corporations pieces of personal information is because these corporations (historically speaking) have never rounded up and murdered dissident groups like governments have been want to do from time to time...

Petronia
Petronia

What type of Government do we have : Democracy, Oligarchy or Republic?

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage like.author.displayName 1 Like

I choose to reveal myself to various corporations. I've made no such choice with the government. Plus the Bill of Rights should protect me from government overreach. The courts are failing to protect us from such government intrusions.

khadjsal
khadjsal like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'll address why there's a double standard. It breaks down to the government being able to put me in jail for 40 years for, what any normal person would consider to be, trivial crimes. Corporations could try to sue me out of existence but that's not in their best interest in any way. Our government has shown it has no problems throwing people in jail. In fact, given that we have one of the highest incarceration rates of any western democracy, it seems like it's promoted here. The second we clean up our laws and make it so that every person is a law breaker in one way or another I might reconsider them having more of my data. Oh, and we need to reform the way prosecution is handled. Threatening people with 40 years in jail to force them to plea to a 2 year sentence is no justice.

ry404989
ry404989

@khadjsal That's where you're wrong my friend. The United States has THE highest incarceration rate in the entire world. The next closest major power would be Russia. So when you take the snooping and add that fact into the mix it makes for a pretty crappy recipe.