Internet companies like Google and Facebook have long opposed government regulation. These companies understand that the mighty hand of government is like a dam on the river of innovation and profit. Yet, in their determination to become more adept at understanding how to target their users with ads and perform actions needed to better serve their clients, they have entered the danger zone of threatening personal privacy.
Recent events, however, lead us to a bigger question: are these companies now providing the National Security Administration (NSA) with the tools they need to continue its unconstitutional bulk data collection, or is this just a terrible coincidence?
Late last year, a judge determined what we all already knew to be true: NSA bulk data collection is unconstitutional. In January, President Obama announced he was ordering “curbs” to the data collection program as a result of the ruling and the public pressure that has grown since the information was leaked by Edward Snowden.
Curiously, at nearly the same time President Obama ordered changes to NSA surveillance, a group of internet companies reached a deal with the NSA in a class action lawsuit regarding the collection of data and the lack of transparency. That deal, however, leaves loopholes opens that could allow mass data collection to continue.
Then comes the newest version of the Facebook messenger app, downloaded by more than 1 billion people. It has raised serious privacy concerns among users, although Facebook says they are not up to anything “sinister.” In this Big Brother 360-degree surveillance society that we live in, however, the specifics of this app are enough to concern even the average user.
Permissions for this app include:
- Allows the app to call phone numbers without your intervention.
- Allows the app to send SMS messages.
- Allows the app to record audio with microphone. This permission allows the app to record audio at any time without your confirmation.
- Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.
- Allows the app to read you phone’s call log, including data about incoming and outgoing calls.
- Allows the app to read data about your contacts stored on your phone, including the frequency with which you’ve called, emailed, or communicated in other ways with specific individuals.
This latest Facebook application follows admissions by Google that they do, in fact, scan your emails. Google claims it scans Gmail to better target ads for their users and increase their profit margin. They say this is now a standard industry practice. The irony is that Google has made strong statements in the past about respecting the privacy of its users.
In perfect corporate double speak, Google denies reading emails, but admits to scanning them, according to court documents as reported by the Guardian. In fairness to both Google and Facebook, however, anytime you are the industry “top dog,” you are likely to receive an enormous amount of complaints and criticism.
So, here’s the rub: bulk data collection, reading emails, listening to phone calls, and using your phone or computer camera to scan the interior of your home may be illegal for the NSA, but if you grant a commercial entity your permission to use those functions through an application, is it then still illegal? The unfortunate answer is that it may not be.
So, is it then possible that internet companies involved in the suit against the NSA could have caved to pressure from the Obama administration to collect data for “their own purposes,” which can later be called by the NSA or intercepted in real time?
What kind of privacy can people anywhere in the world expect if the camera on their cell phones or computers can be turned on to record their actions and words at anytime without their approval? What about malicious apps? Could they be used to exploit the permissions granted to Facebook or Google apps to gather information for criminal purposes, or possibly deposit illegal data or other materials on the computers of unsuspecting victims as a way to frame them for a crime?
The fundamental issue here is the inviolability of the individual and his right to be secure in the his person, papers, and property from unreasonable search and seizure. What value do constitutional protections have if terms of service that few read and even fewer understand can override all protections and provide fertile ground for unlimited data mining?