28/07/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why Corporate Surveillance Is More Dangerous Than The State's

A man looks at his cell phone as he walks on the street in downtown Madrid, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013. On Wednesday Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said that the head of Spain's intelligence services will address Parliament over allegations that Spain was a target for surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency. He reiterated that if confirmed, such activity is “inappropriate and unacceptable between partners and friends.” (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

The network of computers and connected devices that we call "the Internet" is taking over ever more crucial functions in our daily lives. As a result, our political and civil freedoms come to depend on the details of how that technology works. As Edward Snowden courageously showed us by disclosing the breadth of US intelligence listening, it is now feasible for the world's most powerful entities to conduct mass surveillance of a billion people -- watching their communications with their loved ones and friends, all their purchasing, dating, studying and commercial activities -- identifying patterns of contact and behaviour that they either want to encourage, or to suppress.

But most of those entities aren't governments. There are a few national governments with the technical and economic might to perform these acts of mass or global surveillance. The governments of the US, UK, Russia and China not only make and use this technology at home, but export it and co-operate it with other national governments around the world. More recently in the news for being aimed at the economic activities of other European national governments and the European Commission, the German national listening facilities have been built and are operated with the extensive assistance of the US intelligence agencies and their associated giant contractors, like Booz Allen Hamilton, Edward Snowden's former employer. But a few dozen global corporations, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone, and some Indian companies conduct more surveillance, collect and analyse more individual personal data than all but the most powerful governments.

"[W]ithout legal protection for privacy, for the secrecy and anonymity of communications, there is no sufficient protection for the freedom to form and hold opinions in any society."

Corporate surveillance for commercial purposes is merely hidden, not secret. "Terms of service" that you never read, that you click "Yes" to accept automatically in order to try out some attractive new website - you provide your acquiescence for the operator to "collect information about your usage in order to improve your experience," or some such vague language. That means they watch everything you do on their website, and everything you do on any other website with their "Like" or "+1" or some such buttons on it. They don't spy only on what you say, or what you buy: they spy also on everything you read and everything you look at in every web store. If they're your telecommunications provider, these companies spy on your "traffic" keeping track of everyplace you connect to and what you do there.

They don't want you to be conscious of their ever-present surveillance, for which, once upon a time, you gave some general permission the consequences of which you didn't understand.

But if you do question the extent of their invasion of your privacy, they will hide the immorality of the activity behind the innocence of their motive, which is only to sell you to advertisers in order to make money. All they want is to introduce you to an advertiser who wants to sell you what you want to buy. So they study everything you do in order to send you the right advertisement at the right time.

What's wrong with that?

In their eagerness to read our minds to sell advertising, the "platform" companies and telecommunications operators are creating a network of pervasive surveillance that totalitarian governments in the 20th century could only dream about. The companies design their technologies to follow users, report user behaviour, optimise their "platform's" understanding of its users' wants, desires and intentions. They are, in effect, intelligence services, spying on individuals for profit. They tell us "privacy is over, give up, get used to it," and they hope that we'll believe them. We tell ourselves "I'm not important, why would anybody bother to spy on me?" Or "If you're not doing anything wrong, what difference does it make if they spy on you?"

But, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye notes in a just-published report, without legal protection for privacy, for the secrecy and anonymity of communications, there is no sufficient protection for the freedom to form and hold opinions in any society.

Most government surveillance is now merely auxiliary to corporate commercial surveillance: government agencies overtly use legal means -- and some use also covert or illegal means -- to acquire information about individuals collected and maintained by commercial parties. In order to address the complex balance between national security, law enforcement, and privacy, however, we cannot begin without starting from the corporate surveillance that, for purely private motives, creates an ecological failure of which despotism takes advantage.

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