The Silicon Valley tech giants want to reform government surveillance on the Internet? That's what they say, anyway. In an open letter to U.S. Senators, technology titans such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, Google co-founder Larry Page, and Yahoo's Marissa Meyer joined forces to urge Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act to "help restore the confidence of Internet users here and around the world, while keeping citizens safe."
Lost in the conversation, of course, is the question, "Who's keeping us safe against the very companies these people represent?" A piece published in the Wall Street Journal last year from journalist Amir Efrati pointed out, in detail, how Google compiles digital dossiers of its users based on location data and online activity. Google even admits to its own hypocrisy in a court filing last year:
People who use Web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient's [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, 'a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.'
Google is correct. We cannot be surprised that companies providing email services examine our "private" communications. At the same time, isn't this admission contrary to their case against the government?
And then there's Facebook, who along with Google and others, openly partners with database marketers such as Acxiom and Epsilon, which compile and then sell your data. Earlier this year, we learned that in the U.S., Facebook actively tracks visitors on almost 50 percent of the most popular websites. It's a profitable system based on soulless capitalism. These gross violations of your privacy are indicative of an egregious pattern of documented behavior by Facebook. From Deep Face technology that identifies people in photos, to Graph Search, which makes shared Facebook content accessible through natural language queries, Facebook's hands are hardly clean. A class-action lawsuit, filed in California against Facebook in January for online privacy violations highlights the argument. Cited in a report from High-Tech Bridge, the Swiss security firm suggests Facebook goes to extremes by scanning links shared through private messaging. And Facebook just added a new feature to its app that accesses your phone's microphone to record "background noise" for use as a status update.
The list of similar privacy violations by these companies reads like a stock ticker. Yet these are the forces leading the charge in support of the USA Freedom Act? Yeah, right. Something else is afoot -- something more clandestine. These companies are not railing against the government for data mining. It's their go-to moneymaker. What they're fighting against is someone else doing it using their sites. They want to be Top Dog, left alone to secretly conduct business as usual without regulations or intervention. Handing over their treasure trove of information to the government makes them pawns. Holding onto that information for themselves makes them capitalist kings.
Remember, the government's intent behind data mining -- for better or worse -- falls under the banner of domestic protection against terrorism. Clearly, I don't believe the government should be allowed to violate our Fourth Amendment rights. The government must be regulated. At the same time, I understand why our government must have the ability to analyze data in an effort to thwart suspected terrorist plots. That's a slippery slope open to debate, where the law must find a way to catch up to technology.
For companies leading the charge in support of the USA Freedom Act, there is a second slippery slope. These companies want to be profitable for themselves and their shareholders. In a capitalist society, they should have that right. But at what price? Not at the expense of my privacy, and not at the whim of crying wolf -- essentially, painting the government as the villain on one hand, while violating my Fourth Amendment rights and spying on every aspect of my life on the other.
It is time for citizens of the world to take action. We must eradicate this mess ourselves by giving our business to companies that protect our privacy rights. It is a myth that companies must spy on us to make money. History is laden with companies that earned their keep by respecting customers and providing great services. Proof abounds that consumers have and will support such enterprises. A conscious capitalist can be profitable and socially-engaged for the greater good. A hypocritical capitalist filled with dreams of dancing dollars will never serve any interest other than their own.
When Silicon Valley is willing to practice what they preach and lead by example, we will ultimately achieve the demands the Goliaths' of the valley emptily place before our government. It is time for the Davids of the valley to rise!
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