Facebook vs. NSA: which is worse?

Data collection, regardless of who is doing it, is a potentially dangerous genie when let out of the bottle.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

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.

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