When referring to the massive, super-secret NSA surveillance scheme over the American people (and the people of the world), commentators oftentimes conflate data collection by the government with data collection by private entities, especially those on the Internet. The notion is that it’s all sort of the same thing and that since people are willing to let Google, Yahoo, Amazon, retailers, and physicians know so much about them, they really shouldn’t have any reservations about letting the government do the same thing.
Actually, however, data collection by the government and data collection by the private sector are as different as night and day.
The first different is with respect to motive. Private entities collect personal data in order to do good things for people. They want to offer them goods and services. So, their intent in gathering personal data is to be able to target people with goods and services that they are likely to be interested in.
Consider, for example, Amazon. By compiling data on what books a person has purchased, Amazon targets the consumer with a selection of books on related topics. It’s the same with other online merchants.
That’s not to suggest, of course, that the sellers are being altruistic. They want to sell more, which means higher profits. Targeting the consumer with things that he is likely to like increases the potential for sales. But by the same token, the consumer benefits too. He is exposed to products that he might never have otherwise learned about.
It’s totally different with governments. They compile data on people in order to be able to use the information against them. Recall, for example, the chief data-collector for the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. He compiled personal data on presidents, members of Congress, and other government officials in order to be able to bend them to his will through a sophisticated form of blackmail and extortion.
Hoover’s methods weren’t flagrant. He wouldn’t come up to a president or a member of Congress and say, “Do as I say or I’ll reveal this to my contacts in the press.” Instead, he would say something like this: “Mr. President (or Mr. Congressman), in the course of another investigation we acquired information regarding your intimate contacts with such and such. I want you to know that we are going to ensure that this rumor never leaks out to the press. You have my word on it.)
At that point, the president or the member of Congress knew exactly what that message meant: Play ball with me or else.
That’s why all governments, including totalitarian regimes, spy on their citizens—as a way to keep them in line. Once a person knows that the government holds a personal secret of his—such as an extramarital affair —the likelihood that that person is going to take a public stand against government wrongdoing drops to nil.
Consider the so-called meta-data that the NSA has been collecting. They tell people that they’re not recording telephone calls but rather just collecting phone numbers that are called.
For one, no one can know for sure that they’re not recording telephone calls because if they were, they would lie about it anyway, knowing that nothing would happen to them if they got caught lying. (Case in point: the perjury to Congress committed by Director of National Intelligence Chief James Clapper.)
But two, imagine that a member of Congress has been having an extramarital affair, which has involved many telephone calls to one particular number — the number of the person he’s having the affair with. The first thing that is going to go through the mind of that congressman is: I’m not about to take these guys on because I know that if I do they’ll leak that information to one of their toadies in the mainstream press. No overt threat need ever be made to keep that congressman in line.
The system works the same way for CEOs of major corporations. If they think the government has acquired some of their deep secrets, they’re not about to take a chance by publicly condemning the government’s foreign military adventures, assassinations, torture, war on terrorism, and other dark-side practices.
Thus, the government’s collection of personal data serves as a way to keep people down and to keep dissent squelched. That’s the real reason governments spy on their citizens—to maintain control over their rackets.
There is another important difference between data collection by the private sector and the government — consent vs. non-consent.
With the private sector, a person has a choice not to divulge any information. I know people who have never purchased one single item on the Internet. Most of us would find that inconvenient but the fact remains: If someone doesn’t want to divulge his credit card number or leave a purchasing trail, he doesn’t have to shop on the Internet. The retailer offers a choice: If you want to buy this product, here are the terms. If the consumer doesn’t like the terms, he doesn’t have to buy. In fact, sometimes consumers can change a firm’s data-collection policies by their buying habits.
Not so with the government. Here, you have no choice in the matter. Consider the NSA’s massive surveillance scheme. Did the NSA ask anyone’s permission before spying on them? Of course not! In fact, national-security state officials are angry that people found out that the NSA was spying on them. They wanted to continue compiling all that personal data on people indefinitely in secret.
What happens if a person objects to the NSA collection of personal data? Nothing. The data collection goes on anyway. No one has a choice in the matter. The government makes the decision on what is going to be collected and not collected. The individual has no say in the matter. He can’t just opt out, as he can with the private sector.
Data collection by the private sector is entirely consistent with the principles of a free society. In the private sector, people have choices. If they don’t want to divulge personal information to others, they can adjust their behavior accordingly.
Data collection by the government, on the other hand, is totally inconsistent with the principles of a free society. It is nonconsensual and, even worse, done for the purpose of inflicting harm on people in the private sector who refuse to toe the official government line on the rackets that the government happens to be engaged in.