As Halloween approaches, it is always interesting to note how our societal fears have shifted in recent times. Since the tragic events of 9-11, terrorism has been an issue of huge importance to concerned citizens in our current scene of international instability.
However, in what is becoming a very interesting duality, many are also worried about the government agencies tasked with preventing terrorism.
Specifically, Edward Snowden’s massive leak of surveillance information from the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) earlier this year provoked widespread anger both in the US and abroad, though the reasons for this anger were distinctly divided. Some have labeled Snowden a hero for blowing the whistle on a program that many believe violates the privacy of American citizens, while others contend that Snowden is no better than a terrorist himself.
To add fuel to a smouldering situation, it came to light this past week that the NSA has been tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone for more than a decade. The German government is obviously less than pleased, and is sending intelligence officials to Washington to meet with the agency. Brazil, which has also been targeted by American spying, has joined Germany in bringing its concerns to the UN.
All of this has not gone unnoticed by Americans, however. On Saturday, thousands of protestors marched on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to express their dissatisfaction. While dissent is not universal, it is clear that many people are, to put it lightly, not happy.
Far be it from me to disagree with them. The NSA’s surveillance programs are too far-reaching and too independent from various other judicial and investigative processes to be truly ethical, and wiretapping the cell phone of the leader of one of America’s foremost European allies is definitely a controversial move.
But why are we so upset over these particular instances of data aggregation? Around the world, there is one organization that gathers enormous volumes of information from everyone who uses its services, and it has an equally enormous user base: Google.
The world’s most popular search engine gathers information about your browsing habits with every search, and even mores if you use its other services like Gmail and YouTube. Mostly, this data is just used to improve predictive search functions and target ads to specific users, but it’s still a little unnerving, to say the least.
On top of this, Google was recently accused of wiretapping itself. Between 2008 and 2010, Google Street View cars had allegedly been signing into unsecured Wi-Fi networks and monitoring other users’ browsing patterns and data as they drove around cities. A San Francisco court ruled this September that this practice can be classified as wiretapping—a decision that opens Google up to class-action lawsuits potentially worth billions of dollars in damages.
So why is it that nobody is out in the streets protesting against Google? Is it because their services are entirely voluntary, or because their data collection seems somehow less nefarious than that of the NSA? Perhaps it is because the NSA programs were secretive and only came to light through a leak, while Google’s policies are set out in publicly available—if rather confusing—terms and conditions documents.
After all, the NSA’s ostensible goal of preventing terrorism is decidedly nobler than Google’s goal of making money. It seems strange to hold a government organization on a tighter leash than a corporate entity.
As a society, we must decide whether surveillance like this is acceptable, and act on that decision consistently—whether the perpetrators are a corporation or a government, the same regulations should apply. Double standards, like the one seemingly in place now, simply cannot last.