The Online Industry And NSA Connection

Big Data

“The fact that private industry now works in tandem with the government to stalk and track us online may deflect but cannot dilute the moral argument. It seems little considerations like the prohibitions against “unreasonable search and seizure” enshrined in our Bill of Rights never made it onto the Behavioral Targeting agenda.

-- Jaffer Ali in Chief Marketer, Oct.1, 2009

Before the new buzzwords of Big Data, many critics were railing against Behavioral Targeting (BT for short). Essentially, BT is the same thing as Big Data, and is actually more descriptive of what marketers and the NSA do with all this data. “Targeting” is exactly what both want to do. Big Data is just more innocuous sounding; before Snowden’s revelations, our government was getting away with unlimited probing without our knowledge.

Let’s set aside for the moment the entire question of whether Big Data is worthwhile for marketers. I have argued elsewhere that it is more akin to snake oil than a helpful elixir. Big Data’s efficacy shrinks compared to its immoral essence. The soulless justifications are hollow and come from the massive service providers and media entities that sell the data to not just marketers but…wait for it…the government!

We now witness the likes of Google, Facebook, AT&T, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Amazon and other online data collectors claim “they didn’t know” that the government was tapping into their back doors. Who can believe this?

Google has been in bed with the NSA (and other government agencies) for years. Conspiracy theory?  Before this became public, you had to don the tin foil hat to believe it. Give me a break.

And we all have given our information to these private, corporate behemoths willingly. These entities like the ones mentioned above sell our personal data directly to the US government. When the sales route is not direct, subsidies come in a different form. Amazon’s new web service AWS, secured a $600+ million deal with the CIA even though its bid was significantly lower than IBM’s bid.

The online industry as a whole has lost its way. Its love affair with “efficiency” rarely led to questioning moral foundations. In fact, Big Data media and marketing practitioners have “legitimized” its use and paved the way for government snooping. How could a marketing executive rail against government snooping when they themselves have been doing it?

Online media and marketing companies give full-throated support for the death of privacy. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt dismissed the importance of privacy back in 2009. I say to him, Bull Schmidt! Do you think Google will protect your privacy? Facebook? Amazon? Of course not.

I have not even mentioned Axciom, Experian and Choicepoint. Their largest customer for data and information is the government. The online media and marketing community have wittingly paved the way for shredding our privacy. Fellow blogger and futurist David Houle offers a bleak POV when he recently said, “This is the world we live in. It is time to accept this reality, happily or not, and move on to how we need to change our morality, ethics and social contracts in such ways that will allow freedom and democracy in a world of no privacy.” [His full post is here.]

In case you might miss what Houle is saying, let’s break it down. Privacy is dead, as a matter of fact. THEREFORE we must change our notions of ethics and morality. We must resist the Eric Schmidts and David Houles of this world who don’t quite understand the difference between what “is” and what “should be.” Morality and ethics lie in what “should be” – something the online industry and government don’t seem to get.