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Google Envy at The NSA
Josh Greenbaum
JUN 11, 2013 09:52 AM
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I have to admit I’ve been chuckling at the degree of shock and dismay at the revelation that the NSA, in the name of security and anti-terrorism, has been monitoring all manner of cell phone and web-based electronic data. And going to a lot of trouble to do so, using court orders and a lot of complex technology to get ahold of and process the information our government needs to keep us safe from terrorism.

Meanwhile, Google, in the name of Google’s profit margin and share price, has been doing the same or better without anywhere near the same level of shock and dismay. In fact, Google gets as much or more information than the NSA out of the Internet, cell phones, and other data sources from a very willing population, which gives it up to Google apparently without hesitation or regret. And as Google controls the data model behind this information flow, instead of having to integrate a vast array of disparate data Google engineers have a relatively easy time building the analytical models they need to further their business goals. 

Maybe the NSA just has the wrong approach, or business model, or both.

Because it’s clear that if you sign up to the Google experience you’ve effectively handed a public company an information stream that would make the NSA – and their counterparts around the world – drool with envy. Right now we don’t really know the extent of the information being gathered by the NSA, but it’s clear they’d have to work hard to find a single source of information as effective or a user population as willing to hand over their digital lives as Google’s.

Maybe instead of sneaking around and bothering with clandestine court orders, the NSA and Uncle Sam should adopt Google’s methods. It’s really very simple: Google’s business model is based on getting you to use their tools and services for free in exchange for giving <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-57588396/did-you-really-think-google-was-on-your-side/">Uncle Eric </a>(and Uncle Larry and Uncle Sergey) as much information about your actions and interactions as possible. In a perfect Google world your email, phone calls, messages, videos (those you make and those you watch), photos, music, news searches, banking transactions, purchases, location, voice, speech and facial characteristics, information sources, friends, social graph, and, with Google Glass, the contents of your visual field, are all captured and analyzed by Google. (And please forgive me if I left out some favorite Google service, there’s just so many and I’m only one blogger.)

Google then takes that information and uses it for…whatever it wants. That includes targeting you with more goods and services, as well as selling your information to advertisers who want to target you with their goods and services. There may be other things as well – for all we know they’re fighting terrorism and global warming with your data. But, short of a lawsuit or a Wikileaks-like leak, we’ll never know.

To me the difference between the super-secret NSA and the super-secretive public company called Google is that the NSA is chartered to monitor communications (outside the US, and not inside, according to critics of the executive order that has allowed it to gather Verizon’s data) in order to safeguard our country. I’m pretty much okay with that, the Boston Marathon bombing another reminder that there’s a they out there who really are trying to get us. And while the NSA operates under a veil of secrecy that is sometimes a little too secret, there are oversight committees in Congress and the Executive branch that give me some reassurance that its actions are taken in accordance with the law.

And there’s still the Fourth Estate – or what’s left of it, ever since Google started to aggregate content for free, capture a ton of online advertising, and kill the business models of most news organizations (but I digress) – that can pitch in like the U.K’s <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance">Guardian</a> newspaper did last week and at least call out a situation where the NSA’s actions are worthy of further scrutiny.

Google has no such oversight, no particular legal constraints in the U.S. for its information gathering activities – though the more privacy-conscious European Union is hot on their case. And Google’s motives beyond profits aren’t nearly as clear – or potentially pure – as the NSA’s. In fact, from where I sit, the NSA ought to be massively jealous of what Google is able to do in the name of free enterprise, out in the open and with the blessing of both government and the people, while the poor NSA has to sneak around in the dark of night like a bunch of spooks begging for a little data in the name of national security.

Maybe the NSA should buy Google? Or maybe Uncle Eric has been hobnobbing recently with presidents, prime ministers, and dictators as part of a road trip to shop the idea that Google should acquire the NSA or France’s DCRI intelligence agency, or at least let them outsource their data gathering activities to Google.

In the end if you’re outraged by what the NSA is doing, you should be equally outraged at what Google is doing. And if you couldn’t less about either one, good for you. You’ve become the model citizen that Uncle Eric wants you to be, and, assuming you’re not in jail or on a do not fly list due to your information profile, you’re clearly not a terrorist either (though you might be a massively stupid one begging to be caught if you’re a terrorist and a consumer of Google’s services.)

Even so, we need to make sure that all us of understand where patriotism, privacy, and unbridled commercialism intersect, and what our choices are in terms of what happens with the digital signatures we’re leaving behind. I for one think the NSA may have a case for doing what it’s doing, I’m much less sure that we should be giving Google a pass as well. 

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