Google versus the NSA, choice versus trust

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

"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.

Editorial standards