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.
- Please imagine me saying the word secretly while signaling for the world’s largest air quotes.
- 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.)
- I’m watching you with Google Analytics right now!
- 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…