This week, I paid a small fortune to have the instrument cluster replaced on my car, and the mechanic, sympathizing as I wincingly wrote out the check, said, “The days of mechanical failures are over.” By this he was of course referring to the reality that everything we depend on is supported by integrated electronics and computers, the downside of which is that failures are often systemic and expensive rather than isolated and cheap. In fact, I can’t think of any repair to any machine in the last decade or more that hasn’t required replacement of a control panel, and it’s these delicate electronics that make even products we still call “durable goods” not so durable as they used to be. Given all that and other considerations like privacy and security, is the proverbial “smart home” desirable? Frankly, if my coffee maker, smoke alarm, fridge, television, and thermostat all start talking to one another (and a company like Google is listening), I’m never going to sleep soundly again.
With its 3.2 billion dollar acquisition of smart device maker Nest, Google is clearly poised to enter the home through portals other than the computer and mobile device. As this article by Steven Rosenfeld on AlterNet.org describes, Google is fairly unapologetic about invading privacy as a for-profit venture, which makes the company’s public denouncements of the NSA more than a little hypocritical. The article lists several ways in which Google has already violated user privacy, including its achieving the dubious honor of paying the highest civil fine ever ($22.5 million) to the FTC for bypassing user security settings in Apple’s Safari browser. While the fine may be a record-breaker, it is likely dwarfed by the market value of the illicitly gained data Google was able to sell to advertisers. So, not an effective deterrent, then.
I’ve been called a privacy skeptic by commenters on this blog and in other places because I’ve stated that I’m not extraordinarily fussed about the Snowden revelations. Let me try to clarify. I’m not extraordinarily fussed about the Snowden revelations in context to the larger picture. I think the 4th Amendment should be defended, even if that defense is on principle alone; but in the case of domestic spying, I do believe we may be substantially more focused on principle and hypotheticals than on practical, day-to-day reality. In reality, it is unclear yet whether or not the intelligence-gathering agencies have broken any laws or violated anyone’s rights. In reality, Americans polled on the issue are split right down the middle, which suggests there may be little change in policy no matter what. In reality, most people who work at these agencies really are more interested in finding terrorists, human traffickers, and other criminals than in reading the content of our boring-ass emails during their lunch breaks. In reality, the only entity that has been caught reading the content of our boring-ass emails is Google, and this includes not only Gmail users, but people who have corresponded with Gmail users. In reality, if the intelligence gathering agencies really want the dope on any one of us, they need look no further than most of the stuff we voluntarily put out there through social media. And finally, if intelligence gathering agencies want robust information, they’re going to get it from Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, DropBox, and Skype, all of which are named in the aforementioned article as supplying information to government agencies.
And this brings me to the latest email blast from the Electronic Frontier Foundation inviting users to an online protest on February 11th called The Day We Fight Back – Against Mass Surveillance. Invoking the martyrdom of Aaron Swartz, the defeat of SOPA (again), and the disgruntlement with the NSA, the EFF wants us to raise the fists of solidarity against domestic spying. And that’s fine, but where is there any mention of Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, DropBox, or Skype as targets of this day of protest? There isn’t. Instead, these corporate entities are being portrayed as first-tier victims of intelligence overreach, several issuing transparency reports as though to say, “Look at all the data we have on you the government made us give them!” So, assuming we successfully reign in the intelligence community (or convince ourselves we can), are we still cool with all the for-profit data collection these companies are doing because it’s supposedly voluntary? Are we okay with prospective employers or insurance underwriters judging us based on our search data or Facebook profiles? Because that’s a lot more likely than the average citizen attracting the attention of an analyst at the NSA?
I’m all for holding government agencies accountable, but not if we’re simultaneously letting private industry off scott free. After all, private industry is actually better at this domestic spying thing, and they have a profit motive, which I happen to think is a more realistic concern than the hypothetical analyst who just wants to pry because he’s a creep. To debate and protest domestic surveillance without focusing on these private companies seems incomplete to say the least. So why isn’t the EFF more critical?
Here’s the thing that worries me more than anything an Edward Snowden could possibly reveal: when corporate interests seek to drive a wedge between the public and their elected representatives, it’s often because those representatives are (as they are meant to be) a barrier between the public and whatever the corporate interests would like to do to the public. And that’s what I believe is happening here. I don’t think the EFF gives a damn about actual privacy, otherwise the aforementioned companies would be in their crosshairs for this protest on the 11th. I think the EFF wants to capitalize on distrust in “the government” in the service of protecting the Internet industry’s interest in maintaining our trust in the almighty cloud. After all, what could be worse for Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, DropBox, and Skype than if we all seriously began to care about privacy?