Corporate and Government Surveillance

Or: Why Senator Sheldon is Wrong

June 02, 2015Filed under tech#listiclesMarkdown source

Brian Auten shared this speech by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse on Facebook, and I wrote up what follows in response.


  1. I broadly agree with the critique of the libertarian/TP angle on government as essentially an appendage to business. I am by no means hostile to the government in general or in principle, nor even to spying, nor even to warranted (double entendre intended) use of data for law enforcement. The idea that all government is bad is woefully incorrect; it is better to speak of abuses, either of government or of business or indeed of any sphere exceeding its right domain or acting inappropriately within its domain.

  2. There is a profound and important difference between corporate data collection and federal government data collection: one of them, people accede to directly (though see below); the other they accede to (at best!) indirectly through elected representatives, with whom they may profoundly disagree and against whom they have no recourse (unlike the case of, say, Google or Facebook—one can simply stop dealing with them). Whatever information I have granted to a corporation, I have chosen to grant them, and I can stop doing so with future information at any time. I cannot do so with the NSA, FBI, etc.

  3. That distinction may be relatively meaningless for most people in practice, given that the terms, means, and consequences of the data collection carried about by corporations are often obscure to the point of incomprehensibility.

  4. As such, a serious reformation ought to occur in the realm of business and the way that people’s information is handled. Treating information about customers as the primary point of transactional value has significantly deleterious costs on any number of things.

  5. For this reason, I consistently advocate for and (where possible) choose to use services which are supported by direct payment, rather than by advertising, and so on. This is not always possible, but where it is, we should consider taking that path.

  6. Nonetheless, because of the government’s power of coercion—a power not held by corporations, though to be sure they can exercise significant force of a certain sort through legal machinery/chicanery—the collection of metadata by the government does pose a more potent and long-term threat to liberty than that by corporations.

  7. As such, people are absolutely right to be more tolerant of corporate data collection than of federal data collection. That they ought to be less tolerant of corporate data collection by no means suggests that their hostility to unwarranted governmental data collection should be diminished: quite the contrary.

  8. Therefore, while some of the criticism of the government’s data collection may well be driven by the sorts of corporate interests he suggests, and while much of the opposition from companies like Facebook and Google is indeed hypocritical, the criticism is still warranted. The NSA has clearly and repeatedly overstepped even the extremely wide bounds granted it by the Patriot Act, and the Patriot Act itself licensed behavior that should be horrifying to people concerned with the long-term effects of mass surveillance on governance.