Facebook vs. NSA: which is worse?

Facebook vs. NSA: which is worse?

Summary: Data collection, regardless of who is doing it, is a potentially dangerous genie when let out of the bottle.


Let's start with a simple question. Do you read the usage agreements when you sign up for a new online service? No? Most people don't.

If they did, they'd be rather concerned. In Facebook's Data Usage Policy, for example, Facebook freely admits it catalogs information like your IP address, the pages you visit, your GPS location, and — of course — all your friends and relationships.

Facebook certainly doesn't stop there. Any web site that features a Facebook Like button or has any Facebook widgets may report your browsing history back to Facebook. So even if you don't specifically Like a page, Facebook probably knows you've been there.

Facebook also gets information from advertisers, and any advertiser in its network may help gather information that's reported back to Facebook's data centers.

Even more to the point, to quote from the company's Data Usage Policy:

We also put together data from the information we already have about you and your friends. For example, we may put together data about you to determine which friends we should show you in your News Feed or suggest you tag in the photos you post. We may put together your current city with GPS and other location information we have about you to, for example, tell you and your friends about people or events nearby, or offer deals to you that you might be interested in. We may also put together data about you to serve you ads that might be more relevant to you.

Now, of course, Facebook isn't alone in capturing all this data. Google maintains a tremendous amount of analytics data. This information helps to inform searches, power Google Now, help improve translation, and so on. Of course, all that information about you is captured and stored.

This brings me back to the recent brouhaha about the United States government data acquisition and counter-terrorism operations. Lots of people are up in arms about just how much information about you the government captures, and what they might do with it.

Of course, there is a difference. I did an interview with Bloomberg Radio, and as host Pimm Fox pointed out, we all clicked "okay" on the various online service usage agreements, but didn't okay the government doing the same thing.

Most of us love these online services and are willing to give up a little information about ourselves to fuel the advertising and marketing efforts of those services in return for the value they provide us.

Perhaps we should think about it the same way when it comes to our government and the NSA. After all, we benefit from constant vigilance protecting us from unyielding and unending assault from our enemies, they provide roads, bridges, police and fire protection, a whole host of regulations designed to keep us (moderately) safe, and even years of research that sometimes lead to technologies as transformative as the Internet and GPS.

That's right. If it weren't for the work of the U.S. government, the world wouldn't have had either GPS or the Internet.

Sure, there's a risk. There's the risk that an overzealous prosecutor or cop would go delving into all that information and choose to prosecute any of us for something that might have been alluded to over the Internet.

But there's also a risk with companies like Facebook. Last week, for example, we found out that Facebook released contact information to millions of "friends," without having permission to do so.

Let's say you're being stalked by this crazy chick who you just unfriended. You then change your number and give it to your best buddy, who is still a Facebook friend. He enters the new number into his Facebook account. Facebook then decided it was okay to link up the old number with the new number, and go ahead and give everyone who had the old number (including the unfriended stalker chick) your new number. So much for privacy.

Facebook has since apologized, and they've said they've gone out and fixed that bug. But, in the meantime, Facebook's data collection and aggregation efforts start to seem a lot more scary than our own government trying to prevent its citizens from being killed by terrorists or enemy actors.

At the beginning of this column, I asked which is worse, the NSA or Facebook. In my book, the real answer is that data collection — regardless of who is doing it — is a potentially dangerous genie when let out of the bottle. In the same way that nuclear research led to both the bomb and nuclear medicine, massive big data collection can both harm us and provide us with enormous value.

We accept as a given that Facebook needs to collect all of this data to provide us with interesting information and observations about our friends. I submit that it's far more important to accept that America's counter-terrorism agencies need to collect all the data they do for the far more serious task of protecting American lives.

Who is worse? Neither. Should all that data in any hands worry you? Heck, yeah.

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Hydra

    Why do we have to chose? This is a military industrial complex for the modern era. These big companies and government agencies are simply heads of a hydra.
    x I'm tc
    • yes

      But Facebook does it for profit, NSA does it for to suppress your personal freedom
      On Facebook you can choose a little what to write there, with NSA you can do noting

      Snowden IS a HERO!
      • Profit?

        So because Facebook does it for profit, it's ok for them to spy on you? Strange logic you have! Facebook makes profits off of you AND share some information about you with the NSA. Snowden is a "hero" that can't face the music. Let him rot in that beautiful democracy of Ecuador, via that other beautiful democracy of Russia.
        • "can't face the music"

          No sense in Snowden facing the music in a rigged game.
      • Actually you CAN do something ....

        Keep your "mouth" shut.

        Apparently there is all forms and types of Idiot sh-stuff-it that can be put on-line without coming to the attention of the Government.

        But if someone thinks they can put it out there for the world to see that they are planning to "overthrow the Government", kill a politician, or they cook meth, or their a Kiddy Diddler and NOT come under the gaze of the Authorities, well, then that person is too dumb to reason with.

        It's sort of amazing. Years ago we wouldn't write things down. Now people make a vid of themselves committing a crime and even post it on the wed. Have people gotten that stupid?

        Wanna post how Barry was born in Kenya? All sorts of idiots are posting that poo.

        Use any kind of media to advertise you have a 50 cal sniper rifle and plans for capping a "prominant politico", or cry about the Gov. and download detailed instructions on making plastique .... I'm sure that being posted will set a NSA flag and be looked at .... then wonder why you get a knock on the door I'm afraid you're too dumb to deal with.

        Rob Berman
  • One Is Overseen By Your Elected Representatives, The Other Is Not

    Simple answer: vote for the politicians you can trust.
    • Still Looking

      for a trustworthy politician .......
      • Re: Still Looking for a trustworthy politician

        I thought you USians were so fond of your guns because you could always use them to prevent your Government from becoming too oppressive.

        How's that working out, then?
        • re: our guns and freedoms

          personally I think a lot of gun owners and revoulitonary types are either too lazy or waiting on someone else to go first,, I hear a lot of grumbleing,, but seeing no action
          Larry Blowers
          • Re: or waiting on someone else to go first

            Because you know what happens to someone who shoots a representative of the Government?

            They tend to shoot back.
    • It's hard to hold people accountable...

      ...when you're not allowed to know what they do. This applies to the public and private sectors alike.
      John L. Ries
  • So let's put the genie back in the bottle! Simple.

    • Nice to say but ...

      any clue on how to accomplish said act?
      • Not so nice

        1. DO NOT TRACK enshrined as a citizen's right.
        2. Encrypted VPN enshrined as a citizen's right.
        3. Punishments for violations: escalating multi-billion dollar fines; life imprisonment for executives of companies guilty of repeated infractions; death penalty for corporate execs. lying to congress.

        Only kidding about the multi-billion dollar fine ;-)
        • Not a bad idea but...

          None of this could be implemented unless the corrupt forces that make and abuse the rules are removed first. Even if they were enacted they would not be followed. Especially if they succeed in their war against whistleblowers.

          First and foremost the public must be made aware of what is going on. Then there will enough leverage to create positive change.

          Without Snowden and others, step one would never occur.
  • Facebook vs. NSA: which is worse?

    Very simple...Farcebook...by a wide margin.
    • Are You Sure?

      I can fire Facebook (or Farcebook) but have no way to fire the NSA ......
    • Firing Facebook does not delete the data

      Also all your friends and contacts that are still on facebook could be entering information which may update the information that facebook and other have on you. Also, the government seems to be aggregating that data from all the sources.

      Also in the past, legislation like the Rico Act and the Material Witness Law have been stretched way beyond what was intended, so that now being deemed a Material Witness could have you end up in a glass box for an undetermined amount of time unless you testify the way a prosecutor wants you to testify. It happened to one of Bill Clinton's friends in the Whitewater investigation.

      There's the risk that an overzealous prosecutor or cop or even a private lawyer with a court order in the future may be able to delve into all that information and choose to prosecute or sue any of us for something that might have been alluded to over the Internet or some pattern that has developed.

      It sounds farfetched but the movie Minority Report might be showing what is possible in the future with enough data. Just because it seems like paranoia doesn't mean it can't happen.
  • Freedom on the Rocks - Federal Tyranny versus Terrorism

    The depth of connections between high-tech corporate America and the NSA is not being fully revealed; we’re being lied to daily.

    If you want to know what’s REALLY going and with all your personal data and what the NSA’s goal is, read this:

  • Facebook can't

    have you arrested or executed. Yes, there is a difference...
    Tony Burzio