Hassett: The data war

BY NICK HASSETT | MAY 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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It’s not every day that you see a company defy the U.S. government. You especially don’t see them do so in a brazen and public way.

Yet recently, tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have started informing users when government agencies request their data for investigations. They claim that users have a right to know when their information is compromised. Following the example set by Twitter, which began notifications for this sort of thing years ago, it seems more companies want to let you know that they’ve got your back.

Cynical pundits call this move nothing more than a cheap shot at the bureaucracy. The tech companies, some have argued, are taking a hypocritical moral high ground. They’ll sell your data to all sorts of bidders without giving you any notice, but when criminals are being investigated, that’s when they take a stand?

With all the public backlash against the secret data-amassing conducted by the NSA and other agencies, the tech industry’s warning shot across the government bow is of no surprise. What is surprising is that the government is firing back.

After Edward Snowden revealed a treasure trove of information on how exactly the government is taking and using our data, including the stuff we entrust with Silicon Valley companies, perhaps the administration felt the microscope lens it found itself under was unfairly narrow. Or maybe it’s just out of spite after the very public airing of the NSA’s dirty laundry and the almost gleeful focus on these practices by the tech industry.  For whatever reason, the White House released a report last Thursday detailing the types of data collecting methods used by tech companies, and arguing that when comparing the public and the private sector, there’s not much of a distinction.

The report cautions against the unbridled utilization of so-called “big data,” referring to data collection so large in scale that traditional processing methods are ineffective. Using sophisticated algorithms in tow with this data collection, the tech giants can paint a picture of a person (or, in this case, millions of people), inferring their race, gender, sexual orientation, buying habits, etc. and use this information to target ads toward them.

But the danger of this practice, the report claims, is in the way this data could affect things like bank loans and job offers. Between your smartphone, email, and Internet browsing, companies can get a pretty good picture of who you are. And they might not like what they see.

Of course, these same sorts of methods are also used by the government, except your participation in their program is not exactly voluntary. And as we found out last year, even other countries’ populations have been targeted for U.S. data collection (including world leaders like Angela Merkel and Brazil’s Dilma Roussef). If you don’t want Google to see your email, you can stop using Gmail. If you don’t want the NSA to see your data, you probably have to leave Planet Earth.  

The sheer scope of this collection is unprecedented in human history. Without ever seeing your face, government agencies and tech companies now have the ability to categorize you into a disturbingly precise box. And they both say the other shouldn’t be able to do it.

Make no mistake: the data war is just beginning. Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. both crave your information, and they’re willing to fight to make sure they can get it. And when it comes to the invasion of privacy, this war will leave all of us caught in the crossfire.

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