Tech giants' surveillance reform rally is disingenuous and self-serving

I'll be brief, because I'm seven days now with the flu and don't feel much like writing. But today's "open letter" for global government surveillance reform demands rebuke.

I'm all for curbing government snooping, but what about corporations collecting information? Tech Giant's -- AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo -- reform rally is disingenuous and self-serving. These same companies collect mountains of personal information for profit. So, what? It's okay for them to snoop, but not governments?


My thinking: Trust no one, particularly those with strong financial incentives. I soundly support reform requests from parties that don't directly benefit from curbs -- particularly, in the United States, those standing on the Constitution.

In assessing anything I report about, the first question asked: Who benefits? The letters' principal signers are the biggest beneficiaries. These companies seek immediate public relations gains, by disassociating from an unpopular practice for which they either are or are perceived to be complicit. Long-term, reform removes the government as an information-collector competitor, frees these companies from having to share customer information with authorities, and loosens corporations from government scrutiny -- if nothing else extent of their own information gathering and location of their web servers.

Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA spying are unfathomable to comprehend and surely unconstitutional. But bureaucracy collecting information en masse is very different from the cold, directed tactics the letters' principal signatories use. They are easily able to identify who you are and build portfolios based on online behavior.

We all know the controversies about cookies. But companies like AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo know who you are once signed into their service. For some, like Google, that account follows you pretty much everywhere online. Okay, so the government amasses millions of Verizon phone records. I don't approve, but it's a wide net cast. By contrast, these tech giants hook and follow you directly. Which is more insidious then?

I don't defend government spying. Secret courts granting government unrestricted access makes my skin crawl. But that doesn't excuse corporate shenanigans. Someone needs to turn around these tech giants' self-serving demands and point the finger back.

The companies put forth five principles, which I adapt and apply to them:

1. Limit corporations' authority to collect users' data. Information tracking and gathering should be a 100-percent opt-in process. Users must implicitly agree, or no data can be gathered. If businesses prove they cannot be trusted, then it's time for a more anonymous model to emerge -- perhaps consumer tech that encrypts or scrambles all online activity or transactions.

2. Oversight and accountability. Government is incapable of overseeing corporate spying. There is implicit conflict of interest -- and bureaucracy moves too slow, while technology changes so fast. Corporations also cannot be trusted. Citizenary must work with bloggers, news media and free-speech groups to catch and publicize corporate spying. Boycott offenders.

3. Transparency about corporate information collection. All data collected about you should be immediately available on request. Companies must disclose with whom they share or have shared your personal information. There should be complete, unequivocal transparency.

4. Respect the free flow of information. Personal information gathering violates the very open principles behind the Internet. Corporations use your information to target advertising and even modify searches based on what some mindless algorithm determines are your preferences. Let users decide what's important to them, what information they want to share and with whom. Apply Principles 1 and 3 to achieve such end.

5. Avoid conflicts between corporations and customers. If users can choose whether or not to be monitored, see with whom personal information is shared and choose which third-parties see the data, both the corporation and customer benefit. Consent and control can endear users to their service providers. Consumers are informed and directly see the benefits of some information sharing. Trust binds them.

Photo Credit: mikute/Shutterstock

13 Responses to Tech giants' surveillance reform rally is disingenuous and self-serving

  1. psycros says:

    This is one of those rare examples of the writer being completely sincere, and I applaud both the content and the spirit in which it was conceived wholeheartedly. This is how an EoC contributes best to any news or opinion outlet. Maybe Joe should get sick more often :)

    One small quibble, however..

    "Okay, so the government amasses millions of Verizon phone records. I
    don't approve, but it's a wide net cast. By contrast, these tech giants
    hook and follow you directly. Which is more insidious then?"

    The government's "casting a wide net" is simply the application of their superior (and illegal) information technology. They are most definitely trying to build profiles on every single American and as many foreigners as they possibly can - that's how their complex programs which identify connections between individuals and organizations works.

  2. Great points as applied to all companies together, but some consideration of them individually is important even if they are signatories together on the document. If this were just Google and Yahoo, and perhaps Twitter, it'd be less humorous, but Apple, AOL, Facebook, and Microsoft? Ask Netscape Communications how benevolent Microsoft and AOL are. These are not names in the dictionary next to "Sweet, Loving Corporation" like, say, Starbucks is.

    Now, some would argue Google is evil, too, and perhaps there is something to that in some of its practices; however, there are levels of corporate evil and as an Android and Google user I really don't feel I give as much as I get from Google. Google is working to float Wi-Fi balloons over sub-Saharan Africa and is systematically humiliating other companies into offering customers more for their money (Google Fiber, Moto G) but at the same time bringing the third world online and into the first world. Yes, this gives them more people to advertise to and is self serving, but they have one heck of a lot more clout with me than AOL and Apple.

    • psycros says:

      Google spies more than all the other companies combined. Is your freedom really worth so little that you'd trade it for free email? Seriously, other than having the best search engine what is Google really offering that most people actually need or can't get elsewhere just as easily? And if Google really wanted to show its benevolence why isn't it floating those internet balloons over the vast unconnected areas of its home country? 20% of the US can't get does providing fiber to places that already have multiple high-speed options help the disenfranchised? Its all about commercials with little African kids playing with a Nexus in their tin shack schoolroom. Did Google stop to ask those kids if they'd rather have internet or clean water?

      • maytrix1 says:

        Don't confuse privacy with freedom. You aren't losing any freedom by someone reading your email - just privacy. Unless of course you are a terrorist and arrested based on your emails, then it might impact your freedom.

      • Gill Bates says:

        "Seriously, other than having the best search engine what is Google really offering that most people actually need or can't get elsewhere just as easily? "

        Agreed. Search and Youtube.

  3. async2013 says:

    I have always said they will never gain trust again unless they all open source so anyone can check their security especially as regards Windows and the NSAkey that was willingly incorporated into windows since windows 95OSR2.
    This isnt going to happen so they dig their hole deeper. A company like Microsoft say they will have others check their source for security is akin to Joe Wilcox from this site checking Brian Fagdolls ludicrous stories for truth on the readers behalf. Aint going to happen people, you all need a reality check on what you are using, they are all shit

  4. 1DaveN says:

    While I agree with everything you've said, I don't really see the analogy between government and corporate surveillance in quite the same way. If Google finds something about me they don't like, what's the worst they can do? Stop me watching kitty cat videos on YouTube?

    Refresh your memory about Richard Nixon, who, among other things was causing IRS audits of his political opponents. In a worst-case scenario, any corporation's "worst" pales in comparison to what can be done by a government. In a return to the Nixon world, I can envision a scenario where the most outspoken political opponents of those in power end up on a no-fly list or "accidentally" end up in jail in a case of mistaken identity.

    In both cases there's a very substantial risk of personal data falling into the hands of malicious actors. In the government's case, all it would take is for the next Snowden to have less pure motives than the one we know about. In the case of a tech company, they don't say much about attacks on the integrity of their data, but is there any doubt such attacks are attempted every day?

    While I agree that we need to be careful of abuse by corporate "big data" compilers, we can't let that be an excuse to accept the NSA's warrantless, suspicionless surveillance. "Everybody does it" wasn't an excuse your mom accepted when you were a kid, and we should not be accepting it now. What everybody else does is just as irrelevant now as it was when we were kids.

    • GumbyDammit! says:

      Well said. The potential problems caused by the private sector in regards to privacy pale in comparison to the actions the state can take.

  5. sportmac says:

    see joe, you don't have to be a tool. you can still write good stuff. maybe it's the drugs or fatigue. no matter. whatever it is it's good for you.

  6. Gill Bates says:

    I am fine if a corporation collects information on my to sell me more of their products. Its how things work. (Apple)

    I am NOT ok if they collect information on sell to third parties. (Google, Facebook, Twatter).

    Knowing this you simply have 2 options. Use the free server ices (information gathering tools) or not.

    I won't use anything Google that I have too. Search and youtube is what I use of theirs. Fake email accounts linked to other fake email accounts so I can post on sights like this.

    Microsoft is sad joke in this matter. Their relationship with the NSA prior to the whistle being blows was CONSUMER LAST.

    • quidpro says:

      Good. Lord.
      If you're arguing that other companies don't have you roped in like Apple does, then you've succeeded.

  7. Will F says:

    Well said Joe, I'd say the agenda here to to prevent the government from collecting data so these corporations can sell their data to the government.

    Time to take out the ol' tinfoil hat.

  8. Daniel O Keeffe says:

    Well the difference is that the purpose of the government is essentially to protect the rich from the poor, and basically to keep the corporations in line. its kinda scary that they are working together to screw us over, we actually have to rely on "terrorist" groups to protect our liberties. Corporations are financial entities, they will do what they do, I'm obviously not saying its ok but in my view the government doing it is far worse, it defeats the whole purpose it was set up for.

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