Government signals intelligence versus multinationals

In all of the discussion about the extent to which the U.S. NSA is collecting and analyzing data, the role of the private sector in similar analysis has been strangely neglected.

Observe, first, that all of the organizations that were asked to provide data to the NSA did not have to do anything special to do so. Verizon, the proximate example, was required to provide, for every phone call, the originating and destination numbers, the time, the duration, and the cell tower(s) involved for mobile calls — and all of this information was already collected. Why would they collect it, if not to have it available for their own analysis? It isn’t for billing — part of the push to envelope pricing plans was to save the costs of producing detailed bills, for which the cost was often greater than the cost of completing the call itself.

Second, government signals intelligence is constrained in the kind of data they are permitted to collect: traffic analysis (metadata) for everyone, but content only for foreign nationals and those specifically permitted by warrants for cause. Multinationals, on the other hand, can collect content for everyone. If you have a gmail account (I don’t), then Google not only sees all of your email traffic, but also sees and analyzes the content of every email you send and receive. If you send an email to someone with a gmail account, the content of that email is also analyzed. Of course, Google is only one of the players; many other companies have access to emails, other online communications (IM, Skype), and search histories, including which link(s) in the search results you actually follow.

A common response to these differences is something like “Well,  I trust large multinationals, but I don’t trust my government”. I don’t really understand this argument; multinationals are driven primarily (?only) by the need for profits. Even when they say that they will behave well, they are unable to carry out this promise. A public company cannot refrain from taking actions that will produce greater profits, since its interests are the interests of its shareholders. And, however well meaning, when a company is headed for bankruptcy and one of its valuable assets is data and models about millions of people, it’s naive to believe that the value of that asset won’t be realized.

Another popular response is “Well, governments have the power of arrest, while the effect of multinational is limited to the commercial sphere”. That’s true, but in Western democracies at least it’s hard for governments to exert their power without inviting scrutiny from the judicial system. At least there are checks and balances. If a multinational decides to exert its power, there is much less transparency and almost no mechanism for redress. For example, a search engine company can downweight my web site in results (this has already been done) and drive me out of business; an email company can lose all of my emails or pass their content to my competitors. I don’t lose my life or my freedom, but I could lose my livelihood.

A third popular response is “Well, multinationals are building models of me so that they can sell me things that are better aligned with my interests”. This is, at best, a half-truth. The reason they want a model of you is so that they can try and sell you things you might be persuaded to buy, not things that that you should or want to buy. In other words, the purpose of targeted advertising is at least to get you to buy more than you otherwise would, and to buy the highest profit margin version of things you might actually want to buy. Your interests and the interests of advertisers are only partially aligned, even when they have built a completely accurate model of you.

Sophisticated modelling from data has its risks, and we’re still struggling to understand the tradeoffs between power and consequences and between cost and effectiveness. But, at this moment, the risks seem to me to be greatest from multinational data analysis than from government data analysis.

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