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Navin Nagiah Headshot

Consider the NSA, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and JC Penney -- Who Can You Trust?

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The answer: nobody. Let me explain.

Most recently, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department saying that the collection of even "metadata" for the 3 billion calls that Americans make each day was illegal.

Intelligence officials have emphasized that this surveillance is required for preventing terror plots, and that the data collection is restricted to "only" metadata. How much can anybody trust authorities who didn't reveal this information until the lid was blown? Your guess is as good as mine.

Professor Felten of Computer Science and Public Affairs at Princeton states that metadata is more than sufficient to reveal intimate personal details of the U.S. citizenry.

This is both a problem and a debate that won't go away any time soon. How much security do we need? How much liberty are we willing to give up for that security? Who makes that determination? These are some of the most difficult questions of our times. Answers to these questions will determine the technological advancement and societal progress we will effect as a comity over the next few decades.

Perhaps we can't trust the government.

Each year consumers return about 9 percent of sales, i.e. about $264 billion worth of merchandise. Retail giants track the "returners profiles." In one sense, this is understandable. They are just trying to understand who misuses the system, i.e. they are trying to monitor the "chronic returner." However, who is to guarantee that these profiles won't be misused? What happens if it is misused? How will they be held accountable and by whom? Will we even be able to find out the misuse of data?

Perhaps we can't trust traditional businesses either. Perhaps we need to rely on new-age businesses built on the foundation of "do no evil" in Silicon Valley.

After all, there are a spate of news articles that seem to claim that Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google et al. are requesting that the government disclose more about NSA data requests to the general public. Facebook is apparently even in talks with the government about this. Google wrote an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and to FBI Director Robert Mueller for permission to publish the number of secret requests it receives for customer data.

The said companies claim they are frustrated by the government gag order.

Is that a cause for optimism? Or is this a smoke screen for misleading the public, positioning themselves as the good guys who are values-based and consumer-centric wishing the government would let them tell you what is going on?

Seriously? Who are they kidding? They aren't even open or transparent about their own data practices in the first place. Isn't this a little bit like the pot calling the kettle black?

Each of these technology behemoths collects a humongous amount of data about you -- about what you do, about who you talk to, about what you search, about where you are, about what you buy, about your likes and dislikes, et al. They sell some form of these data to other companies and monetize it. Because these data essentially define you, they're actually monetizing you.

There is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong with it is if they aren't communicating to you what they're doing with this data.

If they don't tell you that can you trust them when they make a big hue and cry about how the government is making requests of them for your data? Why should they be any better or worse than the government or anybody else?

The finance industry (which unfortunately has become all powerful) has taught us a lot of useful lessons. One amongst those lessons is: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This is true of governments, of companies, and of individuals. A recent example from the finance industry -- a BillGuard-sponsored industry report found that American card holders were hit by no less than $14.3 billion in "deceptive charges" -- about half of which were subject to refund. (Note: The new app from the company is supposed to help consumers fight this wave of misleading charges.)

The fundamental issue from my perspective is transparency. Whether it is the NSA, the Justice Department, Facebook, Google, JC Penney, Microsoft or anybody else, what each of them is essentially saying is "Yeah, we have some data. We won't tell you what we have. But, trust us, we are not harming you with it. In fact, we have it only for your benefit." What complete baloney!

The only reason each of these entities is hoarding data is because data means power. It is the new gold. It will determine who succeeds and who doesn't. It will also determine the hierarchy of power in the new world.

That is reality, and that is acceptable. However, what is not acceptable is the secrecy behind this hoarding of data. This accumulation of data needs to happen transparently -- because when there is no transparency, "trust" is lost. When trust is lost, relationships break down. When too many relationships break, society suffers.

Somebody has to take the lead and set the standard for transparency either now or very soon. If not, the prognosis of a society where the few control the many (in this case because of "data power") is never good.

The other alternative is for an entrepreneur to disrupt this prognosis with a technology or application that shifts this data power back from the few to the many. Given the history of entrepreneurial strength this country has exhibited, I wouldn't bet against it.