Big Data, Big Tech Companies and Big Brother


The tech giants are outraged. Apparently the NSA is spying and collecting data on U.S. citizens. And that, of course, is Google’s job. In an open letter to the President and Congress, Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo and AOL have put the U.S. government on notice.

In the letter these 8 Silicon titans argue: “The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual, rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish.”

The letter goes on to say that the U.S. government’s current surveillance policy threatens these freedoms. In other words, it is well and good for Google and Twitter to have access to all this personal data, but Big Brother better back off.

Strangely enough, it has taken almost 6 months for these companies to express their collective displeasure. After all, the Edward Snowden’s leaked documents were published last summer. But considering that the heads of the companies are barely on speaking terms, agreeing to the wording of such a letter probably took some time.

The letter and its accompanying landing page, calls on the government to take 5 basic actions:

1) Limit Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information

2) Create More Oversight and Accountability

3) Offer Greater Transparency About Government Demands

4) Respect the Free Flow of Information

5) Create a Framework to Avoid Conflicting Laws

The publication of such a letter and landing page is noteworthy. It reveals that the NSA surveillance puts companies like Google and Twitter in a sticky situation. They ask for access to our information so they can send us appropriate advertising on our mobile devices and computers. Our data is, they assure us, protected and secure. But is it? Has the NSA placed these networks in jeopardy by subpoenaing or strong arming private customer information? Today, under the gag orders from the secretive FISA court, they can’t mention how many requests for disclosing information they are getting by the NSA. The letter has received reactions from activists.

“It’s now in their business and economic interest to protect their users’ privacy and to aggressively push for changes,” Trevor Timm, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Told the New York Times “The NSA mass-surveillance programs exist for a simple reason: cooperation with the tech and telecom companies.”

The question is who will continue to play Angry Birds if they get worried that it gives the government a window into our privacy?

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, said in a statement. “Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”

For all the hoopla, it is questionable that this letter will change the cloak and dagger behavior of the NSA. But it may advance the conversation about how we balance national security, big data collection and personal liberty.


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