Huffpost Media
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Nicholas Mennuti Headshot

Jay-Z and Samsung Are Not the NSA

Posted: Updated:

An unfortunate detour is occurring in the ongoing privacy debate spawned from Edward Snowden's NSA disclosures. People are now starting to look for equivalences in the behavior of corporations and the government. This is a topic worth discussing and in the spirit of the musical mash-up (since we're going to be talking about Jay-Z shortly) I've decided to juxtapose two quotes, to get us started:

Jon Pareles, New York Times:

I can't be the only one who thinks it's creepy, especially when Edward J. Snowden's revelations have shown the extent of government surveillance of e-mails and phone records. If Jay-Z wants to know about my phone calls and e-mail accounts, why doesn't he join the National Security Agency? Nor is it particularly reassuring, to me anyway, that this example of data collection and forced speech was required by corporations -- Samsung and Jay-Z's Roc Nation rather than the government.

Nate Silver, Interviewed by "Fast Company"

You know," he continues, "whereas business can be amoral, I think politics is actively immoral on many occasions. So people will ask if I will go work for a campaign and I say, 'No way.' I can make a lot more money working for a hedge fund and it would be a lot less actively evil. At least you're not trying to manipulate people's belief systems.

Clearly only one of these speakers understands the role of corporations versus government, or to be even more exact, public versus private. But before I tell you which one, here's a brief backstory of the current controversy:

Samsung, the South Korean manufacturer, decided to get in the Jay-Z business in an effort to expand their reach in the North American telecom sector. The company purchased one million downloads of Jay-Z's latest album Magna Carta...Holy Grail for five dollars each, and through a smartphone app available only to owners of the newest versions of Samsung Galaxy phones and Galaxy tablets, leaked the album on July 4th, five days ahead of its scheduled release.

Now some users including rapper "Killer Mike" and above quoted Jon Parales are complaining about the invasiveness of the app for the following reasons:

Upon opening, the app asked for the phone's status and identity, and when installed, the app demanded a working log-in to Facebook or Twitter, plus permission to post on the account. Also to unlock secret lyrics you ended up having to spam your friends. Based upon this, Mr. Parales apparently felt as violated -- more in fact -- than when he found out his government was spying on him.

Now I don't mean to sound particularly harsh to Mr. Parales, but drawing any link between Samsung, Jay-Z, and the NSA shows such misunderstanding of the usage of Big Data that he should probably excuse himself from the grown-ups table on this one, and keep reviewing albums.

The Jay-Z app is business, pure and simple, and corporations and the government operate according to different rules. You may ask me then -- do I think it's a problem when Verizon, AT&T Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al, share your records with the government? Most definitely. That's a fundamental violation of your privacy and should be fought against tooth and nail. The corporations didn't ask your permission to share your data and have no justification to do so.

However, what Samsung and Jay-Z have done is merely annoying at best.

First off, one chose to download and open the Jay-Z app, and once you do that, you have assumed responsibility for the ensuing results. Let's not turn this into a case of negative naivete.

Second, the Jay-Z app was free, and in return for being free, made the conditions of its download that you give something in return -- your contacts. It may seem like a steep price to many. Fine.

Don't download it then. It's a personal choice. Wait the five days and buy the album when it comes out.

The Samsung App and the NSA snooping are in no way commensurate sins. The government is spending your money -- confiscated through ever-rising taxes -- to pay private contractors and the NSA to harvest your data for its own personal use. And not even bothering to tell you about it to boot. You are literally footing the bill for the NSA to spy on you. Jay-Z and Samsung wanted some data and publicity for a free app you decided to install.

And not to give corporate America or in this case Samsung a total pass, but advertising, marketing, and PR, have been looking for ways to strip-mine your subconscious and address books since the early 1920's, when people suddenly had money to spend on items that weren't considered necessities. If you ever want to get your mind truly blown, look up the Wiki page for a gentleman named Edward Bernays -- the nephew of Sigmund Freud -- and the inventor of modern public relations, and see if you still think Samsung and Jay-Z should be spitting sulfur and have coiled tails.

But the Big Data revolution actually began in earnest in the late 1970s at the Stanford Research Institute, where a corporately funded endeavor to create more exacting "focus groups" was launched using punch-card computers and mass surveying techniques. Based upon the survey results, advertisers were able to break potential customers down into specific personality types, and better target and individualize their sales pitch by studying where customers fell on the psychological scale.

So let's make this real simple for Mr. Parales and anyone else who feels violated by the Jay-Z/Samsung app. Data Mining is just the newest incarnation of the "focus group" and the mailed survey. Corporations want to know what makes you and your friends tick so they can learn how to more effectively sell to you. And they have always wanted this. They just have a larger sampling pool these days.

But selling and spying are two completely distinct uses of data and the words Edward Snowden or NSA should never be conflated with a Samsung app.