The Real Big Brother


Internet users should be wary of the overreaching technology firms putting users’ private information at risk

Ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s bombshell disclosure of the extent of federal wiretap surveillance programs caused quite the ruckus this summer. With the nation’s domestic espionage policies revealed for the first time, the government scrambled to justify its privacy intrusions as the public voiced its outrage.

On both sides of the metaphorical political aisle, citizens and media analysts alike decried the government’s mass collection of electronic communications data, such as Facebook messages and emails. But what all concerned parties should keep in mind is that their private information has long been lying in the scheming hands of several Silicon Valley corporations.

Take Google, for example. Despite its overwhelmingly positive public image, the preeminent tech firm is one of the most egregious offenders when it comes to the privacy of users’ data. An Oct. 2 article in The New York Times outlined several instances of current lawsuits alleging that Google’s Gmail service, which operates nearly 60 percent of email accounts in the United States, illegally monitored users’ email and used the data for undisclosed purposes. During a trial, Google itself admitted that all messages sent to and from Gmail addresses by generally unsuspecting users are scanned. Tellingly, US 9th Circuit Judge Lucy Koh deemed this invasive process unjustifiable given Google’s basic task of sending email.

For the average consumer who is, realistically speaking, unlikely to scour the Terms of Service with an attorney’s eye for sinister privacy pitfalls, the broad scope of the company’s mischief will prove surprising. An inspection of the Terms of Service accompanying Google products reveals that any content “submitted to Google’s Services,” including any emails or documents sent via Gmail, are subject to be “used, reproduced, modified, or publicly displayed.”

However, not all of Google’s policies are disclaimed on their website. The company cars that meander up and down neighborhood streets collecting imagery for Street View on Google Maps were caught illegally collecting data from residents’ Wi-Fi networks. What Google did with that data is so far a mystery, but their ability to blatantly steal data and receive just a trivial fine is cause for worry. While Google claims that the use of consumers’ data is intended for promotional and developmental purposes, consumers would presumably be livid to see their personal correspondence emblazoned in Times Square’s neon ads as a Google promo spot.

Although such a situation is unlikely given the public backlash it would cause, it would be perfectly possible given the power that Google grants themselves through their end user agreements. As consumers become aware of the computer scientists at Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters looking over their figurative shoulders, they should start to consider the alternative services available from companies who have less interest in mass data collection.

As if their cavalier approach to basic user privacy wasn’t bad enough, Google’s legal terms go on to state that the company has every right to “create derivative works” from anything sent via Gmail or stored on the increasingly popular Google Drive service. Simply put, Google engineers can liberally “borrow” any content that crosses their servers.

Alarmingly, Google is not the only privacy offender with a sleek glass Bay Area office. The Wall Street Journal reported that a new Facebook privacy policy allows the company to use for marketing the personal data of anyone signing up for an account, regardless of age. Even Apple couldn’t resist getting caught up in the fray, and recorded iPhone users’ location data for some time before caving to public pressure and removing the offending software element. Despite the number of misdeeds, there has been little protest. Government action against these issues thus far has been half-hearted; fines have not exceeded slaps on the wrist. Without a concerted legislative effort to protect users, companies will continue to record children’s birthdays, preferred clothing and best friends’ addresses.

So although libertarians everywhere rail against the excesses of the NSA’s surveillance programs, the bigger threat to citizens’ privacy comes at the hands of corporations. Largely overlooked and frighteningly unaccountable for their actions, internet companies harvest our data on just as massive a scale as does the government. And while the NSA operates under the oversight of elected officials with the goal of protecting the citizens under its purview, Silicon Valley firms look only to turn a profit. Catching the bad guys unfortunately necessitates some loss of civil liberties — that’s why the NSA has existed for the past 60 years. But there’s no reason why a corporation should be allowed the same sleight of hand.

We tend to depend on tech companies for the wonderful conveniences of our day-to-day lives, which earns them lots of goodwill points. But just because a company comes up with a pretty new doodle everyday doesn’t mean they’ve got consumers’ best interests anywhere near their hearts.