Surveillance: It’s not just for Government anymore

eyeFor some reason, I’m thinking about surveillance. It might be because I heard Ben Brucato’s voice for the first time. Ben’s research work (at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) deals , in part, with issues of campus policing and surveillance. I listened to him and a colleague discuss issues of campus policing, student repression and the fine line that administrators have to walk between issues of student advocacy and corporate/government interests. It was quite enlightening.

But then, I’m digging through my blog roll for the day, and I come across this article, on Google’s involvement with right wing advocacy groups:

Google, the tech giant supposedly guided by its “don’t be evil” motto, has been funding a growing list of groups advancing the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Organizations that received “substantial” funding from Google for the first time over the past year include Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union (best known for its CPAC conference), and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation that led the charge to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act: Heritage Action.

In 2013, Google also funded the corporate lobby group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, although that group is not listed as receiving “substantial” funding in the list published by Google.

Google, it must be noted, is one of the largest data collectors in the world, and was a source of data for the recent NSA meltdown brought to light by Ed Snowden (who since ran to that bastion of civil liberties: Russia). It is, of course, completely bizarre that Google would come out with a call to limit government data collection and surveillance, given that’s the basis of their business model.

Moreover, I noticed this article on how companies might be using data gleaned from pornography sites to not only target ads, but also to potentially determine credit ratings for individuals.

I spoke with Sarah Downey, a privacy analyst for Abine, which dubs itself “the online privacy company,” who disagreed with Meyer’s relaxed reading. “Data collection and profiling — and the sharing or selling of that data — is a massive problem and a multimillion-dollar industry,” she said. “I’ve seen enormous misuses of that data, from lost job opportunities to lowered credit scores and credit limits. The fact that trackers are present, and invisible, on porn sites is itself unnerving, and I’m not sure how one person can state with confidence that they’re all acting responsibly.”

Imagine if one’s visits to sex sites ended up raising the interest rate one could get on car or home loan, or even the ability to rent an apartment. Though it can’t be confirmed that this is going on, it’s no less frightening.

Honestly, despite the obviously very serious nature of the issue, I don’t worry about government spying. I encourage it. Greater spying and full transparency only makes us all subversives, and we should be proud of that. Clearly, I don’t make policy so my view here counts for nothing.

I find the issue of surveillance by the private sector, however, much more troubling. Google is not subject to election cycles. Note that the revelations about the NSA program might even be so serious as to compromise the ability of Democrats to win the next Presidential election. Google, however, with it’s links to right wing political advocacy groups, could provide tools with which to swing a national or local election.

Google being caught selling data to credit rating agencies will be seen as a matter of business. As both Google and credit rating agencies do not sell products directly to consumers, they have little to fear from public opinion. Though the public went into an uproar over the NSA program, I would suggest that they be far more concerned about private sector spying.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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