How Much Privacy Should We Expect in the 21st Century?


I’m sorry that I’ve been blogging so heavily on this surveillance issue, but I keep finding more interesting things about it. This post highlights how this debate gives us a peak into role private corporations will play in the future, and asks the question, “what role do we want them and the government to play?” It’s inspired by this “Democracy in America” blog post from The Economist, “Surveillance: Should the Government Know Less than Google?” This post is the best framing of the issue I’ve found so far, and is largely how I look at the issue. Yes, a government hiding surveillance from its citizens weakens democracy and is wrong. But should we be surprised that America’s security agencies try to gather data that we already freely give to private companies? No. Not to say that the government’s surveillance policies are justified, but that we should look more closely at just how private our data really is, and begin considering what limits we want to set on its use.

Our lives’ details are not private. They are stored online and in the servers of multiple large corporations. Do you ever wonder how you sometimes get calls from organizations with which you’ve never been involved, asking to support their campaign? Or how about those ads on our Facebook sidebar? Those exist because our personal information is diffuse.

What’s truly fascinating and scary about this debate is that it brings us face-to-face with a fact we have been slow to recognize, which will define our era: private corporations bear an enormous influence on our thoughts and behavior.

Make no mistake, government still controls the most important aspects of our lives: who we are allowed to marry, which drugs we can take, who goes to jail, the benefits you can expect if you become unemployed, how much money comes out of your paycheck, and how much of that money goes toward building bombs versus building schools. These are immensely important issues. Indeed, the government has the ultimate say in all decisions because it has the sole right to the legitimate use of violence.

Yet in practice – and in an era when government’s are increasingly restrained in their ability to legislate by polarization and austerity – private organizations often have the power to enormously change our lives. When Google, Tumblr, and Reddit appealed to their users to resist SOPA because of the potential dangers to online freedom of expression, the users listened. As the traditional news media organizations began to report on the outcry, the pressure grew and the politicians backed off. It’s true that their efforts were directed at a government policy, and it was ultimately the threat of electoral backlash that caused the policy to be withdrawn. Yet would those citizens have been mobilized in such a way without these large and pervasive internet companies throwing their weight against SOPA? It seems unlikely. Thus, we see one example of how these new internet companies – the same ones we trust with mounds of our private data – can influence our thoughts and actions to their purposes.

We trust private companies with our information because we trust that a competitive market will keep them honest. Yet as they grow more powerful, more prevalent in our lives, and more closely consulted by the government, perhaps it is time we have a debate over exactly what we want these companies to do with our information.


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