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