I guess when I think of a threat to privacy that really makes me fear for civil liberties, something like this is what I usually think about. The News International phone hacking scandal, an inquiry into which still drags on in the UK, is what a significant threat to personal privacy looks like.
The debate question, I guess, is whether it was easier for Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers to hack into the phones of those about whom it was interested in writing stories given that large institutions had the information they needed to do this. In other words, is a real breach into personal privacy made easier by the fact that we now live in a world of Big Data. If this were the case, it could support claims against Obama’s NSA for gathering such a large amount of such information.
It’s interesting to note a few things about the News International scandal, though.
First of all, the organisation that presided over this wide-scale breach into personal property was a corporation, not a government. Those who say governments are full of no-good-niks who want to destroy our privacy but are untroubled about the character of corporate leaders, in other words, had better come up with a better position than that.
Second, the institutions which gathered the data News International used to do their phone hacking were, many of them, also corporations. People from News International tricked phone companies into giving away this information – none of this producing a warrant stuff, they just hosed them into giving away the data. They tricked banks similarly. Granted, some government agencies were similarly tricked out of data, like the UK’s Inland Revenue and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Also, bad cops, both retired and still active, also knowingly sold data – though, on the other hand, so did run of the mill thieves. The point here if people want to make case against Big Government being the source of Big Data, they still can to some extent, but it can’t be ignored how much Big Business, as well as thieves not associated with government, also contributed to the data Murdoch’s gang drew upon for their activities.
Third, and most important, no one in the UK seems to be demanding, as a result of this great scandal over breach of privacy, that the Big Data corporations gather should not be gathered. Concerns about the security of this information from outside tricksters, of course, abound. But no one is saying that they are simply shocked that phone companies have information about phones, or that banks have personal information about accounts. For that matter, no one is saying, to my knowledge, that they are shocked that Inland Revenue keeps a database of customs information, or the driver’s license bureau keeps a database of motor vehicle registration information. What they are saying is that they are shocked it was so easy for this information to be used for the wrong purposes.
Maybe there is some logic in the idea, however, that Big Data is a threat precisely because it creates one-stop shopping for big privacy breaches. Instead of having to look all over the place for information that could be used to invade people’s privacy, you just go to one bank’s computer system, or one government agency’s database server, and bingo, you’re ready to mess with a whack of people – or, as was the case with News International, search through a wide list of people to find specific people in whom you were really interested, to invade their privacy specifically.
Perhaps there should be a better way to ensure that personal parts of Big Data gets broken up somehow, so they are never under the control of one organisation. Decentralisation of control over any large dataset might well be a cause people really interested in civil liberties commit themselves towards.
Anyway, if that’s where our “civil libertarians” claim to be going with their comments about Obama and the NSA, that’s great, but then they should be addressing more than just the government. The News International scandal shows they should also be addressing corporations as equally large maintainers of Big Data. If just collecting the data is enough to make institutional actors anti-civil libertarian, there are a lot of large private sector institutions with actors that have, to quote the immortal Ricky Ricardo, a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.
I suspect that’s not where most of our “civil libertarians” really were going with their criticism, though. Their implication, pretty clearly, is that it is worse when government collects this data, even if there is no evidence that the data is used for anything but law enforcement purposes, but somehow okay when private institutions do it, even if we have, as we do in the News International case, lots of evidence that a private institution used this information to promote its own self-interest over the public interest.
That particular message seems like it is more than conveniently adopted by the opponents of Barack Obama.