Breaking News: Edward Snowden Is a PR Manager for Google & Facebook

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.


Amid all the outrage over the Edward Snowden, government-is-spying-on-us drama, something uncomfortably strange is getting overlooked. Sure people are angry that the US Government is secretly1 accessing our digital data. What I find fascinating is that no one seems to mind that all this data exists. Think about it: if governments can collect all sorts of personally identifiable data from the Googles and Facebooks and Verizons of the world, that means the Googles and Facebooks and Verizons of the world have that data. What do you think they’re doing with it? Do you think it’s digitally decaying on some remote server that no one ever accesses?

By being outraged at the US Government for looking at our data, but not being outraged at the companies collecting that data, as a society we’re essentially agreeing to the following statements:

It’s acceptable for Google to use my data to sell me this:

 

But it’s not acceptable for the government to use my data to sell me this:

 

We don’t mind if Facebook violates our privacy so they can sell our data to these companies:

But we do mind if the government violates our privacy to sell our data to these companies:

Verizon can track my phone usage to up-sell me on these devices:

But the government can’t use my phone records to protect me from dangerous devices:

Don’t mistake my heavy-handed photomontage as me condoning government data aggregation. I’m not. I’m trying to remind all the people outraged at the government to remember that governments are big businesses. Big businesses are obsessive about collecting as much customer data as they can in order to optimize their services and increase sales of their products.2

Because one of the most important services governments provide is protection, the best-selling product of a government is usually safety. By accessing user data, the government is doing what big companies do: its trying to maintain a product that satisfies customer expectations. As outraged as people might be to discover how the government is collecting its data, perhaps we can all take mild comfort in knowing that data collection efforts aren’t being hampered by government’s notorious bureaucratic slowness. The fact that government agencies know they should be looking at Google instead of the phonebook means they’re at least as tech savvy as my parents.

I bring up my parents not just because I enjoy any opportunity to poke fun at older generations (as I’m sure my some-day kids will), but also because people like my parents are the people I’m most worried about. As someone who has been in the web marketing industry for a decade, and as someone who has built custom data analytics engines, I’m fully aware of the Internet’s seedy data collection tactics.3 Are my parents? Are your parents? Are you?4

By focusing all the PRISM-related outrage on the US Government, Edward Snowden has orchestrated an amazing PR Coup. He’s made Google, Facebook, Verizon, and every other tech titan’s aggregation, storage, and sale of vast amounts of private user data an incredibly public practice. But no one cares because that’s not the story.

Apparently, no one cares that big companies track our every digital move so they can sell us more products and services in order to increase profits for owners and investors. We only care that governments are tracking our every move in the public interest of safety and security. How strange is that?

I’m not trying to convince you that we shouldn’t (or should) be mad at the government. I’m reminding you that, if we are going to be mad at the government for invading our privacy, we also need to be pissed at the companies who are collecting, storing, processing, and making money off our data. Otherwise, we should stop complaining. Or — option number three — we should be happy there’s an Orwellian government watching everything we do since, clearly, we can’t be trusted to make rational decisions on our own.

Footnotes

  1. Please imagine me saying the word secretly while signaling for the world’s largest air quotes.
  2. Even though the US got its hand caught in the cookie jar this time, I would hope non-US readers have the good sense to realize there are lots of other cookies, and your government surely has its hand on a few. (Seriously… check the cookies in your browser.)
  3. I’m watching you with Google Analytics right now!
  4. The second I typed the last question mark in this paragraph, I got an excited email from a client. Two days ago we just finished some minor SEO-related tweaks on her website, she Googled the keywords related to her business, and she was ecstatic to see her site ranking first. After I finish writing this post, I’m going to have to send her an email explaining that no, SEO doesn’t work that fast, and she’s only seeing her website first because Google is tracking her. Sigh…

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I teach in Duke University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship program and founded RocketBolt. I write about startups, pedagogy, entrepreneurship, engineering, and poetry. They’re all related, I promise.

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  • In today’s #socialmediamarketing class for @dukeinnovation, I agreed to give students extra credit if they could convince any celebrities to follow them on Twitter. One of my students was a bit more successful than I’d expected 😳
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#entrepreneur #innovation #startup #marketing #hustle #impressive
  • Giving a 3 hour lecture to a wonderful group of Chinese students from Yangtze University visiting @dukeuniversity. We’ll be taking about #marketing #sales #startups #entrepreneurship  #innovation #socialmediamarketing and lots of other stuff that’ll probably put them to sleep. 😴.
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P.S. It’s really hot in this room and we’re all sweating.
  • ‪“In a business, you can hire to solve almost any problem, but nobody can replace discovering the problem and finding the path toward solving it. That’s what an entrepreneur does.” ‬- Sam Fox, a brilliant young #entrepreneur and @dukeuniversity alum who came back to talk with my @dukeinnovation capstone class about his journey into healthcare innovation.
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#entrepreneur #startup #innovation #healthtech #healthcare #guestspeaker
  • Some #boomerang shots from the first day of classes including the first failure challenge of the year: a one hour game of tic tac toe with students, faculty, and staff from across @dukeuniversity. Because why not? 🤷‍♂️
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A special thanks to my new partner in #failure, @star.gould, for jumping in as my #learningtofail co-teacher. It’s going to be a fun semester.
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#startup #startups #entrepreneur #entrepreneurship #innovation #highereducation #highered
  • Torturing my @dukeinnovation #socialmediamarketing students because it’s the #firstdayofschool at @dukeuniversity 😈🤑🤐
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#innovation #entrepreneur #marketing #mystudentshateme
  • Snuck into the back of today’s @dukefuqua Program for Entrepreneurs kickoff event. Maybe if I attend enough classes I can convince someone to give me a free #MBA 😁
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#p4e #entrepreneur #startup #entrepreneurlife #freeMBA
  • I’m hosting today’s @dukeinnovation “Lunch & Learn.” I’m talking with my colleagues about #socialmedia and trying to convince them to take it seriously, so I made them take a group photo for me to post.
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In related news, doing this kind of thing is why I’ll probably never get #tenure
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#entrepreneur #startups #lunchandlearn #mycolleagueshateme
  • Today, I lead the first meeting of a @dukeinnovation faculty committee about creating a methodology for teaching #entrepreneurship that can apply to any type of #venture.
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Mind you, by “lead the meeting” I mostly just mean I was lucky to be in the same room with an amazing group of #scholars and #entrepreneurs who didn’t need any help from me to have a fascinating debate about how to accomplish a nearly impossible task.
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But at least I got to take a picture from the head of the table 😁
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#mycolleaguesarebrilliant #innovation #entrepreneur #wholetmein
  • Brought my daughter with me to watch my @dukeinnovation students graduate. She got to see dozens of examples of the kind of person I hope she becomes: brilliant, kind, thoughtful, articulate, talented, caring, confident, and really good at producing high quality work despite a propensity for procrastination 😁
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Thanks, #duke2018 #graduates for making me love going to school every day. I hope your journeys beyond @dukeuniversity take you into jobs as amazing and rewarding as mine.
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#graduation #innovation #entrepreneurship #classof2018 #bluedevils
  • Drinks at the @thelakewooddurham with the @dukeuniversity Junior Faculty Association to celebrate the end of another great semester.
  • Congrats to all my @dukeinnovation seniors who gave their final Capstone presentations yesterday.
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No more #homework. Now it’s time for the #realworld.
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#duke2018
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#innovation #entrepreneur #entrepreneurship
  • Threw an LMOC (Last Monday of Classes) party in my #learningtofail class.
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The students had to convince their friends to bring food, and they earned points based on how many calories they got delivered to class.
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Lots of cookies and candies. But the winner was the student who convinced his friend to deliver 30 pounds of flour. 🤣
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#innovation #entrepreneur #entrepreneurship #startup #ldoc #partytime

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