In recent days, there has been much discussion about passed legislation called the USA Freedom Act, a law that reportedly curbs some of the government’s power to task the National Security Agency to collect massive amounts of data on American citizens.
At this point, the law is still new and policy analysts are still dissecting it. What kind of data collection, and to what end, it will or will not permit the government to engage in remains to be seen.
However, there are a couple of mega-media companies that were unaffected by the law and will remain unaffected by it, yet they are collecting every bit as much, if not more, data on not just American citizens but users from around the globe.
Yes, world, Google and Facebook are as powerful data collectors as the United States’ foremost spy agency, and what’s more, their data collection is legal because, unwittingly or not, users of both give them permission to do so (was there really ever a time Google lived up to its motto of “Don’t be evil”?).
As reported by National Journal, both sites – and other social media destinations – continue to vacuum up data nearly as fast as it is created, and all in the name of selling you that next widget or product or service:
The private-sector tech companies that run the social networks and email services Americans use every day are relatively opaque when it comes to their data-collection and retention policies, which are engineered not to preserve national security but to bolster the companies’ bottom lines.
“Metadata can be more revelatory than content“
Experts note that consumer data scooped up by the terabytes can provide companies with as detailed a picture on users as they’d get if they were able to access NSA files and databases. Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other media companies comb through usage stats in order to develop precision marketing campaigns targeting users, a valuable endeavor that companies pay big bucks to access.
“What both types of information collection show is that metadata—data about data—can in many cases be more revelatory than content,” Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told National Journal. “You see that given the granularity with which private data collection can discern very intimate details about your life.”
What’s more, there are no guarantees that data collected by private sector firms will actually stay in the private sector.
“The government has a huge number of tools to get data from private companies,” Chris Calabrese, senior policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the newspaper. “That’s obviously a very difficult situation for companies to be in.”
The USA Freedom Act was supposed to curb such data grabs by the government from private telecoms but little was made of stopping Uncle Sam from petitioning a special intelligence community court for a warrant to get valuable data from the social media companies.
“Government can take your life or liberty“
That said, some of the private media companies are employing encryption software for data sent through their services, which has caused the FBI and other agencies to seek out the data via court order. But generally speaking, the FBI, NSA and other agencies get what they are looking for.
“We suggest, and we are imploring, Congress to help us seek legal remedies towards that as well as asking the companies to provide technological solutions to help that,” Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, told a congressional panel recently. “Privacy above all other things, including safety and freedom from terrorism, is not where we want to go.”
That said, comparing NSA spying and the data collection in the private sector is “a little bit [like] apples to oranges,” Calabrese maintains. “There’s real concerns around government overreach that have to do with our constitutional values and what we care about as a nation.”
Unlike the private sector, Rottman added, “government can take your life or liberty.”
Meantime, data collection will continue at the big social media sites, despite warnings from experts to ditch their services for more secure social sites like Unseen. After all, there is always a new widget hitting the market.