The Public-Private Fusion

06/17/2015 11:59 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

For the past two hundred years, much public discourse has centered on the relative merits of the government versus the private sector. However, both liberals and conservatives ignore that the two sectors are ever-more closely linked.

This is especially evident in the ways that privacy is undermined or protected. Take the example of data brokers. If the Federal Bureau of Investigation were to keep detailed dossiers, containing an average of 1,500 details each, about some 200 million Americans, most Americans would go ballistic. However, when private companies such as ChoicePoint and Acxiom keep such records, the American public rarely hears about it. Those who do learn about the companies' activities assume that the information they keep is used for marketing purposes--to help craft advertising tailored to the public's needs, similar to recommending a movie or book based on prior choices. That these data brokers--I call them "privacy merchants"--sell the information to government agencies, including the FBI (which had bought 175 million entries from various brokers as of October 2014) and thousands of other law enforcement agencies, is basically unknown to the public. You should know that these days the difference between the government and the private sector keeping such dossiers is one paycheck and one click.

Federal law has not caught up with the new reality of the cyber age. It greatly limits the information the government can collect, but much is less clear about what the government can buy from the private sector.

Recently, investigators and the media made much of the fact that hackers, presumed to be Chinese, accessed government computers and downloaded records about 14 million people listed in an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) database. Such breaches are very common in the private sector. One might first assume that private-sector breaches matter much less because the private sector deals with consumer goods. One might assume that Chinese hackers' theft of trade secrets about, say, how to make a better mousetrap, would harm the company in question, but would not affect the United States' national security. Hence if private corporations continue to ignore government pleas to improve their computer networks' security--which they often do on the grounds that implementing the government's recommendations would be costly or entail additional unwelcome regulations--they will pay the price. However, the military relies on the private sector for the production of most of the equipment it uses, for great deal of home security work, including the collection and processing if information, guarding of our diplomats and much else.

In short, hackers draw few distinctions between the private and public sectors, and unless both sectors' computer networks are much better secured, the United States' defense and security will continue to be very much at risk.

Last but not least, public discourse over the extent to which the United States should involve itself overseas focuses mostly on the United States' military commitments. Most recently, the debate centered on the question of whether President Obama's decision to send 450 additional military personnel to Iraq reflects a commitment that is too small (as many Republicans such as Senator John McCain hold) or too large (as many left liberals believe). At the same time the American public has heard very little about how many private military contractors the United States military and the CIA currently employs in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. In the recent past the numbers were very considerable; private military contractors on average "accounted for 50% or more of the total military force" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes, the figure ran much higher. For instance there were 108,000 private workers in Afghanistan in 2013, compared to 65,700 American troops still stationed there in that year. A realistic review of American foreign policy and military commitments would encompass both public military forces and private military contractors.

I realize that this goes against the grain. Americans have so long been locked into the assumption that the public and private sectors are rather different realms--that treating them as if they are increasingly fused is difficult to contemplate. However, as these examples illustrate, if our laws and policies continue to focus on one or the other sector, the government will continue to use the private sector to run around the limitations imposed on the public sector's activities and powers. Privacy protection, national security and proper oversight of military involvements overseas require viewing both sectors as if they were one.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His book Privacy in a Cyber Age, which deals with the matters discussed above, was published by Palgrave Macmillan on June 17, 2015. For more information, you can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail to