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Privacy Advocates Set Their Sights on the Wrong G-Men

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, and General Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA and NSA

In an op-ed in last Friday’s Washington Post, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, bemoaned the data-driven economy, equating the data scientists in Silicon Valley with the spooks at Fort Meade.

Unfortunately, she is not the first to do so. Since the exposure of the government’s PRISM program, veteran privacy activists have been conflating the intelligence community’s questionable, closed-door electronic surveillance program with the voluntary, open, and legitimate collection of personal data by the private sector. Chris Hoofnagle at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology states, “What’s happening now is the logical outcome of a leave-it-to-the-market public policy agenda, which left the private sector’s hands unbound to collect data for the government.” And John Podesta at the Center for American Progress argues that after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the government “should not only examine NSA surveillance activities and the laws governing them, but also private-sector activities and telecommunications technology more generally.” Some critics have even gone so far as to blame innovation and technology. Writing in Salon, Andrew Leonard placed the blame directly on the technology: “By making it economically feasible to extract meaning from the massive streams of data that increasingly define our online existence, Hadoop [a big data technology] effectively enabled the surveillance state.”

According to these privacy advocates, the private sector, rather than the federal government is to blame for domestic surveillance. Justin Brookman at the Center for Democracy and Technology asserts, “A lot of what the government knows about us they know because of companies, so you have to have some confidence that you have some control over the data they collect on you.” Apparently the national security community does not bear responsibility for intercepting private electronic communications, legally compelling companies to turn over their customers’ data, or prohibiting companies from disclosing what they were forced to do. Instead, these privacy advocates reason, it is the U.S. tech industry that is at fault for offering consumers attractive mobile devices, apps, and online services that consumers eagerly adopt and use.

The argument of these privacy advocates has basically devolved into the rallying cry: “Are you outraged over PRISM? Then gather your torches, and let’s get Facebook and Google.” Indeed even the Wall Street Journal conspiratorially noted that “The breadth of Google’s information gathering about Internet users rivals that of any single entity, government or corporate” while ignoring that consumers voluntarily use Google’s services and the company has every incentive to not abuse their consumer’s trust. Perhaps it is this confused outrage over commercial data practices which might explain why the press was so quick to believe a blatantly false press release this past week from the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog that claimed Google had “admitted” in a legal filing that its Gmail users have no expectation of email privacy. (These publications all had to issue embarrassing retractions a few days later once their reporters actually read the legal brief and realized that Consumer Watchdog had completely misrepresented Google’s position.)

Americans are rightly upset about the NSA’s spying operations, but privacy advocates have irrationally decided to make the private sector the whipping boy, rather than explore how the federal government might restore the trust it has lost from the citizenry or how national security agencies should balance the competing interests of privacy and security. Not only does this misdirection harm the efforts of policymakers to achieve real reform in government, it has the potential to disrupt the enormous economic and social benefits of the data-driven economy.

Moreover, it is disingenuous of privacy advocates to claim targeted government surveillance is somehow the same as targeted online ads. Individuals can choose not to use a particular social network, search engine or website; they cannot opt out of the NSA’s data collection. So let us be clear: Google is not the NSA.

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