11/19/2014 09:56 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Why Online Privacy Protection Is Not Just About the NSA


When news broke that the NSA had been intercepting communications and gathering large amounts of data on ordinary Americans, technology and communications companies across the spectrum from Google to Verizon rushed to assure consumers that they would stop helping the agency spy on its citizens. That was good news to many Americans who are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being under de facto surveillance by their own government.

However, while our tech giants might stonewall the U.S. government in its efforts to keep tabs on its citizens, it violates the privacy of those very citizens every day for profit, and no one can stop them. They are, in effect, becoming a commercial version of the NSA minus even the goal of doing it to protect our security.

Google, for example, has been criticized by consumers (and in some cases, the courts) for prying into emails, collecting vast amounts of data about the browsing habits of users, bypassing anti-tracking features on mobile phones, and disturbingly even collecting private information from computers inside homes while mapping for street views. Then of course there is Google (and many other companies') version of online stalking -- following your surfing habits to serve customized ads. Sure, some of these things benefit users but at the heavy cost of their privacy.

Similarly, while WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has just announced cutting-edge encryption to protect your messages from snoops, its parent company knows some of your most intimate life details and stores that data to serve you ads and shares that information with its marketing partners.

Long criticized for its casual approach to online privacy and sudden changes in policy that users often remain unaware of, Facebook has lately been trying to rectify its modus operandi (and image). However, given that the "Facebook log-in" as a proxy for user accounts on different websites has now become commonplace, it's hard to see how even Facebook could protect your information when so many sites are effectively gaining access to your posts and pages.

This is part of the problem, of course. Every time a user enters information about himself or herself somewhere on the Internet, there is a high chance that information will wind up somewhere else, usually as part of marketing partnerships. That erodes our ability to control the spread of our data and compromises our privacy, and in some cases, safety (for example, when one of those partner sites gets hacked and our information is stolen). Companies do provide legal privacy policies, but these are often so dense as to be unintelligible, and also full of clever tricks to fool consumers.

But is all this our own fault? Partially, yes, since we are so addicted to technology that we have ceded ridiculous amounts of control to technology companies over our daily lives, our personal information, and our privacy.

However, if society is willing to regulate other addictive products with the potential to harm us, then why not technology? This may sound extreme but it's not. If you consider the vast amounts of damage that can be done to people's finances, career, reputation, and life through the illicit or even irresponsible use of the information they share online, you can see why the "product" that technology companies sell has the potential to be just as pernicious in its effects as, say, a cigarette.

User responsibility is important, but mandating safety standards for technology companies to better protect consumers online is just as critical.

And in the long run, technology companies themselves will benefit tremendously by earning the trust of the public. If consumers feel secure that they can make online purchases, browse the web, or interact via social media without big brother watching them, they will be more likely to do all those things with increasing frequency (and therefore profitability for the technology sector).

The nuance here is that as far as consumers are concerned, big brother isn't just the NSA but anyone with the capability to follow them around in cyberspace.