Are Google, Facebook and Twitter the Reason Mass Surveillance is Possible?

by · March 18, 20147 comments

Edward Snowden’s interview at SXSW was likely the most talked about, debated and controversial session at SXSW this year. Regardless of how you feel about Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s surveillance program, the session raised some very profound questions that are worth talking about. Before we can get to those questions, I’ll set the stage with some background from the conversation.

Mass Surveillance is Happening

edward snowden sxswIf we learned nothing else from Edward Snowden, the most important revelation in all of his interviews is that the NSA is collecting data from telecommunications, email, web searches, and a variety of other forms of communication on a massive scale. This surveillance hasn’t been limited to those who are under suspicion; rather it applies to every American. They have collected data on you, on me, on your parents, your grandparents and yes, even your kids. They are storing our conversations without our permission and ultimately we have no legal recourse. There is no opt-in or opt-out because quite frankly they never asked for permission.

Our Data is Not Secure

The primary reason this type of surveillance is even possible is because ultimately our data is not secure and as general consumers we have very few options to make it more secure. We have to make a choice between tools that are inherently difficult if not impossible for the general user to use or select tools that make it easy for us to use, but lack the security that would make it difficult to access our data. Something I thought was very interesting and likely very true, is that the companies we use to communicate think about security last, rather than first. Therefore, the apps and tools we use to communicate are inherently insecure. This makes mass surveillance possible, but it also makes our data available to hackers, stalkers and other people with bad intentions. What’s worse is that it’s easy for them. Snowden talked about how to make it more secure and it would require encryption at the individual computer level and there aren’t great options for this at the general consumer level. Basically, if you aren’t already a hacker or someone with an in-depth understanding of encryption you are at risk.

Are Services Provided by Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter and Others Part of the Problem?

Ultimately, these companies have vast amounts of data on us. We use their tools to communicate on a daily basis and over time they hold some of our most private and intimate conversations and thoughts. Snowden argues that the big companies we rely on for communication services are part of the problem for two reasons.

It Requires Less Hacking to Get To Our Data

At the core, the biggest challenge is that instead of having to hack into our individual computers the NSA and others simply have to hack into a very small list of companies to get our data.  By having a list so small, it allows a concentrated effort that can be much more successful at hacking into our data. Instead of having to hack into millions of computers, the NSA and others simply have to penetrate a handful of databases. And frankly, when they can’t hack in they are simply serving these companies with court orders forcing them to turn over the data. The best option is for these companies to stop storing the data past a reasonable amount of time for usage.

Not Storing the Data is a Conflict of Interest

Not storing the data opens up a whole different can of worms. While this may be in the best interest of consumers, it is a conflict of interest for the companies who are providing the services. These services may be “free” to us, at least in monetary terms, but these companies scan our communications and monetize it by selling advertising. One point that wasn’t lost in the presentation is that all of the companies they discussed are advertising companies. If their goal is to sell advertising, there is a direct conflict of interest in their business model for not storing and mining this data. We are kidding ourselves, if we think they have our privacy at the center of their interests.

As consumers we have put our trust into the companies who provide us with communication tools without fully understanding the risks that come with a “free” and tools. After all, there has to be a way to monetize a free tool and the way they are doing it is by selling our data to third parties for all intents and purposes. Snowden made it clear that the solution isn’t going to be free for consumers. We have to be willing to pay for services that protect our data from mass surveillance in order to create a business model for the companies who are willing to provide them. The answer sounds complex, but it comes down to encryption, according to Snowden. Encryption makes it far more difficult and more expensive for the government and criminals to get to our data. As consumers we need to demand better encryption and we need to be willing to pay for it so that companies have a way to monetize their efforts to provide us with what we want.

In short, data privacy needs to be at the forefront of the conversation. Regardless of your stance on the policy debate, I think we can all agree that we want our communications data to be secure.

Did you watch the interview? Are you concerned about the privacy of your communications data? Do you think centralizing our communications with a few companies is part of the problem? Leave a comment and let’s have a conversation.

If you missed the interview, feel free to watch it below.

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About Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.brand.com/blog James R. Halloran

    That’s a good thought, Nicole. I think there should be a statue of limitations for how long someone can hold onto our data. Other people like doctors have to safely destroy their patients’ personal and medical information after so many years. I don’t see why social sites shouldn’t be held up to the same standards.

    But is destroying data really possible for social sites? Does it even really matter?

    If those sites can be easily hacked by the NSA, they can generate their own copies of the data they stole. Plus, I’m sure the social sites aren’t waiting 5 or more years to allow their investors to mine it. I’m sure it’s given away as soon as an account is created.

    But that’s just my thoughts. What do you think?

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  • Guest

    Nichole – thanks for the insightful post on the privacy and security of our data. This is clearly a conversation we, as consumers, need to be having. I couldn’t agree more that data privacy must be moved to the top of our priority list. But I’m not sure the situation is as dire as we think. There are a number of companies (mine included:www.mustbin.com) that have made it their mission to raise privacy and data security to the same level of importance as user experience. I truly believe that these two features do not have to be orthogonal to each other. Through the continued push from consumers and the dedication of service providers, we can create an environment where our data is secure and private, away from the peeking eyes of hackers and NSA.

  • Saty Mahajan

    Nichole – thanks for the insightful post on the privacy and security of our data. This is clearly a conversation we, as consumers, need to be having. I couldn’t agree more that data privacy must be moved to the top of our priority list!

    But I’m not sure the situation is as dire as we think. There are a number of companies (mine included: http://www.mustbin.com) that have made it their mission to raise privacy and data security to the same level of importance as user experience. I truly believe that these two features do not have to be orthogonal to each other. Through the continued push from consumers and the dedication of service providers, we can create an environment where our data is secure and private, away from the peeking eyes of hackers and NSA.

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  • http://stephanhokanson.com/ Stephan Hokanson

    My view is that the uncomfortable situation that we find ourselves in is one our own making. After September 11th, there was a conscious, intentional effort to increase data gathering. There was so much talk about our inability to “connect the dots.” A key element of the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” act was designed facilitate data access and exchange by the intelligence community. As a nation we asked for this, and now we’re uncomfortable with the consequences.

    Couple this with the industry trends of faster internet access and a move to cloud-based, “free” services and social networks, and the results aren’t much of a surprise. I’d love more data privacy, but it’s a bit late to lock that metaphorical barn door.

    Enjoy the day.