Google versus the NSA, choice versus trust

Google versus the NSA, choice versus trust

Summary: Why do we trust Google, Facebook, and other commercial operations to compile vast amounts of personal data, yet fear the NSA doing the same?

TOPICS: Privacy, Google

"Give me six lines written by the most honourable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him," said Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal of Richelieu and Fronsac, chief minister of France's King Louis XIII. It's one of history's most astute observations about the power of information and the dangers of what today we would call "media manipulation".

This quote came to mind as I watched, with a combination of amusement and confusion, two news stories unfold in parallel over recent days. One, excitement as people explored the possibilities of Google Glass. Two, horror as people started to understand the possibilities inherent in the scale and scope of surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its allies.

Now, there obviously isn't a uniform, planet-wide geek culture. But if there can be said to be a geeky consensus, that consensus would seem to be "Google Glass is cool!" and "The NSA is evil!"

How is it possible for someone to hold both of those thoughts simultaneously? Both organisations are engaged in the comprehensive monitoring and data mining of personal communications in ways that we mere mortals simply cannot comprehend, and yet with risks that Richelieu certainly understood.

According to some random person on Twitter, it comes down to choice. "I can choose to use Glass. Can't choose the NSA to not capture my email," they said, ungrammatically.

That's only partially true. I can choose not to put a Google Glass device on my own face, and I can choose to not use Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, and all the rest. But I have no control over what other people might do with information about me. If they use Gmail, then every email I send them goes into Google's data mining operation. If a website I visit uses Google Analytics, or any of its advertisers, then my web browsing history goes in, too.

Even if I follow all of the privacy-protection techniques that usually get listed — ranging from preventing my web browser from using cookies to using Tor to hide my internet protocol (IP) address — sooner or later, I'll want to interact with someone I know, engage in some ecommerce, or use some of the services that the internet offers. That means revealing my identity and submitting to whatever data logging and mining that's happening at their end.

To give a concrete example, if my bank's website uses Google Analytics, then my "choice" is to be tracked by Google or change banks. That's not a real choice. Not unless I want to spend the rest of my life dodging imaginary black helicopters.

This isn't about Google, of course. To pick another example, if my hockey team or stamp-collecting club decides to organise its events via Facebook, then it becomes a choice between using Facebook or dumping my hobbies. Again, not a real choice.

So if it's not about choice, is it that we get something tangible in return? Google gives us all manner of tools and toys to play with. But then, the NSA gives us security, originally against nuclear annihilation and now against the threat of terrorists — at least for an "us" that includes Americans and allies in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and here in Australia.

Would there be more trust in the NSA if the protection was more tangible or better explained?

Or is there more trust in the Googles of the world because we think we understand the rules of the game, whereas the NSA is a mystery?

But even if their specific techniques are secret, the Western intelligence services are governed by law and regulation, and, in the case of the NSA, its remit is national security, not chasing your unpaid parking fines. Commercial operators, on the other hard, "share" personal information with all matter of unknown "partners" — insurance companies, potential employers, and so on — with a very real ability to impact our lives, whoever we are.

It is just that nebulous fear of "the government"?

Is it something else? Because, if you haven't guessed already, I just can't see any key difference.

Topics: Privacy, Google


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • It may sound bad, but I will trust the NSA more than Google or Facebook,

    I have nothing illegal to hide from the NSA. However, google stands to make money off of me for their "free services". I have nothing to hide, so I trust the NSA more than I do google thngs right now (that's just me, I'm a middle class white male with nothing to hide).

    With that said, I avoid all things google, and in reality most internet based companies and ( or microsoft, apple, or amazon) services. I recently switched to to Bittorrent sync (and use an offshore vpn) so I could avoid having to store my information and files in the "cloud".

    With that said I respect what all the cloud and internet based companies are doing. If they want to collect information about me, and I elect to use their free services knowing full well they are going to try and collect information on me for advertisement purposes, and anything else that benefits them economically, that's a choice I make. If you don't like that don't use their services. Pay for something or rely on what you can do with your own computer and ISP.
    Sam Wagner
    • Giving that Google cooperates w/ NSA

      What difference is there b/t Google and NSA then?
      • Stilgherrian the problem is that the NSA lied to congress....

        ...and if you lie you loss credibility.

        ( My source, and excellent technical explanation of how PRISM works - )

        Some months ago at a congressional hearing the NSA was directly asked if they were doing something like PRISM and they said no.

        Later they asked if they wanted to changed their testimony and they said no.

        When this story broke someone asked the guy who testified why he said no and he answered by saying something like he thought it was a trick question and he should give the least worst answer..etc...etc... Painful.

        The point being that they lose credibility and respect. If someone hits your car with a football you might be annoyed. If they own up, take responsibility and offer an explanation you might be appeased. You would have some respect for them owning up and trust them in the future. If they instead tried to weasel their way out of the situation you would be even more annoyed and you wouldn't trust them in the future.

        Now I'm not saying Google doesn't lie but credit were credit is due, so far they do tend to own up when they mess up.
    • Google Cannot Arrest Me, Railroad Me, Imprison Me or Otherwise Tyrannize Me

      But the NSA enables the government to do all of those things. History teaches us over and over again that when government grants itself more and more power, it uses it for evil in the long run. Sam Wagner: you need to study some history.

      Perhaps you think that this can never happen in a democracy? Again, you need to read more history. Hitler, for instance, was democratically elected. So were Mussolini, Franco, Chavez, Hussein, and many others.

      Perhaps you think that American democracy is somehow immune to this historical phenomena? Again, you need to read more history. Read about the history of the slaves and their descendants. Read about Japanese-Americans in WWII. Read about the McCarthy era.
  • Because...

    Google and Facebook can't kill you?
    Tony Burzio
    • Neither can the NSA

      Not directly, anyway. But in the interest of "obeying the law", multinationals have been known to provide data to governments (including totalitarian ones like China) that might well want to kill you (depending on whether or not they think you're a threat).
      John L. Ries
  • Here it is for the constitutionaly challenged...

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

    I don't see any place for "buts" in there.
    Tony Burzio
  • A better name for the "Bill of Rights" is

    "The Self Destruct Clauses". Yes, those 10 Rights are a blueprint on how to tear down our government when the time comes. You don't have freedom of religion so you can be a Buddhist. Revolutions are organized at church, and it's hard to foment rebellion if your minister is working for the government!
    Tony Burzio
    • We have freedom of religion...

      ...because experience has shown that efforts to enforce religious uniformity causes more problems than it solves; and religious opinion was diverse enough that such uniformity was a lost cause anyway. That and quite a few of the Founding Fathers were nonconforming Protestants who resented the techniques traditionally employed by the British Crown to enforce Anglicanism and didn't want to use them on others.
      John L. Ries
      • I want that edit button

        Makes it much easier to correct grammatical errors.
        John L. Ries
  • Why did they put in the prohibiiton on searches?

    Easy, think Lexington and Concord. They were running guns and ammunition for the Revolution, and they wanted to have time to move the stuff before the cops could search!

    It has NOTHING to do with Google!
    Tony Burzio
    • There were other reasons

      The heavy handed efforts of crown officials to identify and apprehend smugglers before the revolution come to mind.

      The problem with a dragnet is that a lot of innocent people usually get snagged along with the guilty. This was just as true in the 18th Century as it is today.
      John L. Ries
  • NSA v Google

    Fundamentally the NSA is hoarding all data without proper Bill of Rights authorization to even have the data. Google only gets part of the data and is more aware of the public's preception of how they handle the data. The NSA only cares what the politicians and courts say not the public.
  • Helping you understand, Stilgherrian: It is not Choice VS Trust...

    It is Choice AND Trust.

    The NSA provides NEITHER - we don't have a choice and they make us not trust them.

    Google provides BOTH - we have a choice (even if limited) and they offer us different levels of trust to confide in them.

    So "we the people" can choose to trust Google (although that choice and trust is "layered" because it is not just our choices and our trust that affect the retention of our data by Google), but are forced to trust the NSA.
  • Glass and NSA

    According to some random person on Twitter, it comes down to choice. "I can choose to use Glass. Can't choose the NSA to not capture my email," they said, ungrammatically.

    Can he choose Glass not to capture his email via or excluding the NSA?
  • NSA, CIA, FBI spying

    This is hard to explain. I don't really care because I am doing nothing illegal or threatening. I am largely incensed that they can grab so much data on so many people without a warrant or reasonable suspicion of wrong doing. WE already appear to live under a repressive government like Russia, China, Iran, etc. I guess they have already won the race to be the common and leading type of government.
  • Google doesn't have a military.

    Our government does. Google doesn't have a history of invading countries and double tapping emergency response personnel with hellfire missile-armed predator drones. Our government does. Google didn't just purchase 2 billion rounds of hollow point ammunition to deploy against domestic enemies. Our government did.