Surveillance: the Price for National Security?

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NOTE: John will be teaching workshops on the Shift Network and on campus at the Omega Institute!


Should you trust corporations with your personal information? Who poses a bigger threat, corporations or the government? Last month a 15-year cover-up of government surveillance was revealed in the U.K. Intelligence agencies were accessing private medical records, financial data and more under the Telecommunications Act, even when it wasn’t directly related to a national security interest. Nations around the world are becoming more sophisticated in their social media spying.

In the U.S., the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, has made investments in 4 social media mining and surveillance firms that monitor and analyze social media data. Police departments also work with these firms to identify “radicalization,” protests in the works and more. While much of this data is publicly available, we should ask what constitutes a threat? Who will be targeted next?

In the aftermath of 9/11, fear drives Americans to agree to sacrifice privacy and freedom and give the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, and other agencies unprecedented powers, but that tide has started to turn. Apple vigorously defended its users’ privacy when the FBI wanted access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone (read my post The FBI: A Worm in the Apple).

Other companies have become bolder in challenging the government—even after years of collusion. Microsoft, a company that collaborated with the NSA as revealed in Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013, sued the federal government last month over allegedly unconstitutional gag orders that prevent it from telling users when the government has accessed your email. According to Microsoft legal officer Brad Smith, “Over the past 18 months, the U.S. government has required that we maintain secrecy regarding 2,576 legal demands, effectively silencing Microsoft from speaking to customers about warrants or other legal process seeking their data. Notably and even surprisingly, 1,752 of these secrecy orders, or 68 percent of the total, contained no fixed end date at all.”

While many people detest government surveillance, they are more likely to tolerate corporate data aggregators, which may be just as bad. Corporations’ most valuable commodity is customer data. One recent, rather creepy, example of tracking comes from Clear Channel Outdoor Americas. New billboards can sync with our mobile phones to identify our locations and habits—without our knowledge or consent.

Competitive pressures and the desire for data entice corporations to track their employees, some with 24/7 apps on their phones. Some states have banned employers from requiring employees to hand over log-in info for social media platforms. We must encourage state and local governments to step up their monitoring of violations of employee privacy.

So the answer to “Who poses a bigger threat, corporations or the government?” is “Both pose a serious threat.” At the same time, We the People have lost much of our influence over government while corporations count on us to support them by buying their goods and services, working for and investing in them. Boycotting corporations is easier than boycotting the government, and corporations are often the intermediaries between you and the government.

As I’ve said in my previous writings, consumer campaigns are powerful tools. I encourage each and every one of you to let corporations know that you will support the ones that respect your basic rights, including those that protect your personal information. Don’t be hoodwinked into believing that treading on your rights is a price you have to pay for national security.

About John Perkins

John is a founder and board member of Dream Change & The Pachamama Alliance, non-profit organizations devoted to establishing a world future generations will want to inherit & the author of the NY Times bestseller, Confessions Of An Economic Hitman.

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