As the initial shock of Edward Snowden’s leaks has begun to wear off and the media has moved on to new scandals I have heard a fallacious argument about government intelligence gathering. People perceive a false equivalence between the personal data technology companies gather/exploit and the efforts of government agencies. “The world has changed,” the argument goes, “and if Google has access to the personal information of its users, certainly the public servants tasked with protecting us shouldn’t have their hands tied.” The naiveté of this argument is frankly mind boggling to me. A corporation and the government are not the same thing and should not be conflated in discussions of our constitutional rights to privacy and due process particularly.
Facebook and Google are companies that face frequent criticism for their exploitation of user data in order to empower advertisers. Google’s executives have made several tone deaf statements that seem to demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to those concerned about the brave new, transparent world they wish to create. Facebook faces bad press regularly because of shifting privacy policies that have exposed people to embarrassment and potential harm as their personal information becomes public. Several other tech companies face similar problems as they gather vast quantities of personal data and try to use it to their own advantage in providing services to their customers and users. Abuse of their position can lead to real problems, but nowhere near as much as the same information collected, secretly and relying on dubious legal authority, by government agencies.
This same type of personal information has been used historically by some governments to intimidate, embarrass political opposition, target dissidents, and even imprison, torture, and kill citizens. This is the greatest difference between any corporation and the government. Governments can enact their dictates by force and will only be remade through drastic internal reform or revolution. Corporations, on the other hand, can be brought into submission to the law or will of the people through legal force and the power of the market. The difference between information gathering by companies and the government is a difference of kind, not degree.
Even if you disagree and see information gathering by business and government as similar pursuits consider the ability of a user of Google or Facebook to opt out or cease use of their services (in fact, you opted in to their information gathering, unlike any of the NSA programs). It may be inconvenient or difficult to find alternatives to their services, but it is certainly possible and legal. An American citizen has no effective right to guard their information from the NSA and other intelligence agencies. In fact, efforts to do so through increased encryption and choosing secure/anonymous services seems suspicious to the government and makes you a target.
When a user of a business’ services feels a breach of trust they have recourse; ceasing commerce with/use of their services, free speech (unlike holders of National Security Letters), and lawsuits, to name a few. When a citizen feels a breach of trust with the NSA their only recourse is to literally change the government through electing officials that place importance on due process, privacy, and upholding the constitution (all qualities that seem to be in short supply). With a company you can always walk away, you cannot walk away from those who feel they have a legal right to spy on you.
Tech companies should respect their user’s privacy and be made to keep the law when they don’t. However, despite all the damage they can do, they are nothing compared to the threat of government agencies with the same information. Facebook may regularly annoy and embarrass you, but a government, today or in the future, can take all that you hold dear.