The big news of the last few weeks has been the revelation that the National Security Agency has been spying on Americans. The public outcry has been enormous, and at this point, we don’t know the exact scope and breadth of the NSA’s privacy intrusions.
But if you’ve followed online security trends in the last few years, you probably were not that shocked. After all, the NSA is only following in the footsteps of what companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others have been doing for years.
The only real difference is that the NSA does it for intelligence purposes, while Silicon Valley does it to make money.
How We Got Here
Companies want to know more about their potential customers so they can market their products more efficiently and increase their bottom line. The Internet provides a very easy way to do this. For example, Google looks at your email content to offer you relevant ads, and Facebook tracks what other websites you visit to see what you might be interested in.
In fact, most websites install tracking cookies on your computer to see what other websites you visit in order to see what your Internet habits are and what products you might want to buy.
Data broker companies compile information about you such as your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, political beliefs, buying habits, household health, vacation dreams, and more. Then they turn around and sell this information to whoever wants to buy it.
And all of this is completely legal.
But all of this data is worthless unless companies (and the government) have a way to analyze it. Over the last few years, the cost of storing large amounts of data has dramatically decreased while the value of this information has risen. And both Silicon Valley and the U.S. government have taken full advantage of this.
Silicon Valley, the Government, and Big Data
We live in the era of big data. Over the last few years, government agencies have approached Google, Facebook, Skype, and other major Internet companies because they wanted two things: access to the company’s data, and help analyzing the data. Some of these companies complied with the government’s requests for legal reasons and in order to control the process.
Late last year, we published an article detailing how the FBI has created huge data warehouses using Silicon Valley product to collect and store nearly every email every U.S. citizen sends. There are no encryption measures in place to protect law abiding citizens from having their emails read at any point. Indeed, General Petraeus’ extramarital affair was discovered through emails stored at FBI facilities.
And we also recently published an article about how the FBI has requested back-door access to online media websites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Gmail, and Skype.
The NSA is estimated to spend between 8 and 10 billion each year in Silicon Valley to store and analyze personal information captured from the Internet. And this number is only going to increase as security experts see the demand for data mining increasing exponentially every year.
The government wants access to the data that companies compile on their users, and it seems that they have the legal means and money to get what they want.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The good news about the NSA story is that we finally seem to be having a real discussion about how much the government has a right to know about us. And this has led to a realization that online companies know the same (if not more) information.
It has also made clear the need for personal privacy protections, which include a VPN. A VPN like PRIVATE WiFi encrypts everything: your email, your web browsing history, your IMs, your VOIP, everything.
If you are concerned about what the NSA is doing and would like to sign a petition created by the Free Press group which demands that Congress reveal the full extent of the spying, you can go here: https://optin.stopwatching.us/.
Where will these revelations about the NSA take the wider online culture? Time will tell. But at the very least, we are beginning to see how much personal information about us is being used and potentially abused by both corporations and our own government.