08/27/2013 03:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013

The 'Boyfriend Tracker' App, the NSA Scandal, and Why We Care About Privacy


Brazilians reacted with "outrage," when they caught wind of their portion of the NSA controversy. Yet, a "Boyfriend Tracker" app (used to stalk significant others) managed to find huge popularity among the nation. When the app was deleted, for... pretty much being illegal, the Brazilians were suddenly upset. As one 47-year-old Marcia Almeida explained the puzzling response to the Associated Press: "Brazilians are a jealous people, what can I say? Of course it's going to be popular. It's a different type of spying [than the NSA surveillance program]." You're checking up on somebody you know intimately, not some stranger."

That's interesting, because a psychological look at American sensitivities reveals just the opposite when it comes to privacy; we are upset by those invasions contextualized by closeness, yet somewhat apathetic when it comes to more distant ones. As the Journal of Business Ethics explains privacy: It is understood as a sort of social contract, "contextually defined, where individuals have highly particularized judgments about the appropriateness of what, why, how, and to whom information flows within a specific context."

In simpler terms, "Boyfriend Tracking" is a huge affront, but no one really cares much about government spying.

When news of the NSA controversy first broke, it seemed like a "blockbuster," as many of the networks would soon call it. Our government was likened to Big Brother, with the ACLU officially calling it "beyond Orwellian." As photos of Edward Snowden (and his pole-dancing girlfriend) emerged, we questioned whether history would hail him a hero or a traitor. It seemed like Glenn Greenwald's story would change everything. And yet, it didn't. Really, no one seemed to care.

In a matter of days, Paula Deen had publicly admitted to using the 'n' word, and the public interest moved on to another, more colorful, scandal. As Frank Rich noted in New York Magazine:

The NSA scandal didn't even burn bright enough to earn the distinction of a "-gate" suffix. Though Americans were being told in no uncertain terms that their government was spying on them, it quickly became evident that, for all the tumult in the media-political Establishment, many just didn't give a damn.

Personal information massed with that of others is cloaked in ambiguity. It loses its specificity, in that text messages, emails, or your location (in the case of the "Boyfriend Tracker") are largely irrelevant unless contextualized by a personal bond. If the government knows, for example, that you went to the bank after work, it probably doesn't matter. If your partner or other family member is aware of that, then they will probably be able to deduce other info, like maybe you withdrew money to buy shoes you've been eyeing / can't afford.

The point Frank Rich makes is very telling, because it emphasizes a level of control, but perhaps some of the apathy stems from the concept of our info being lost in the crowd. We choose to share much of the information that the government can obtain, and if they see other things, like emails, who really cares? Unless you are an international terrorist or drug dealer, that information loses significance when it's being presented to someone squinting at an NSA computer, who does not know you personally, and probably never will.

That is much different from a close friend or family member finding out even the littlest detail you did not choose to share with them. As Mary Serewicz put it in a recent essay for the Journal of Family Communication :

Family members share much information in common, and the decisions they make regarding the use of that information can result in wide-ranging consequences for the family and its individual members.

That is precisely why the popularity of the "Boyfriend tracker" app (and the upset over its deletion from the Google Play app store) is so counterintuitive from the American perspective. The distinction that Mary Almeida makes, between "someone you know intimately" and "some stranger" is exactly what makes us concerned about the former and unfazed by the latter.

Whether or not that is a rational concept will come to light as the effects of government spying are further revealed in the coming years. For the mean time, the government is more than welcome to attach a GPS-tracker to our significant others, but we will abstain from anything even remotely as stalky as the "Boyfriend Tracker." "Big Brother is watching," but girlfriends and wives are most certainly not.