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Transparency Report: When it Comes to Privacy, People More Concerned With Big Business Than “Big Brother”

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Original article:

People around the world are thrilled by the ease and convenience of their smartphones and Internet services, but they aren’t willing to trade their privacy to get more of it.

That is the top-line finding of a new study of 15,000 consumers in 15 countries…The study, conducted by Edelman Berland, a market research firm, and sponsored by EMC, the data storage giant, has some other intriguing results with implications for business. Consumers worldwide seem to strongly agree with the notion that there should be laws “to prohibit businesses from buying an selling data without my opt-in consent” — 87 percent.

When asked to name the leading threats to online privacy in the future, 51 percent of the global panel of consumers picked “businesses using, trading or selling my personal data for financial gain without my knowledge or benefit.” That was well ahead of the 35 percent who selected “lone/crazy hackers, hacker groups or anarchist types.” The prying eyes of government — “my government spying on me” — was cited as a serious privacy threat by only 21 percent, even in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks that showed the sweeping surveillance programs of American and British intelligence agencies.

It is worth noting that among countries surveyed, those with a higher standard of living where generally less willing to trade privacy for “convenience”. In countries where people are less well off, they are more willing to trade some of their privacy for conveniences (saving time / money)–lending credence to the idea that privacy is, to a certain extent, a luxury.

In the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, it is a bit surprising to see people around the globe so much more concerned with businesses selling their data (51%) than government “spying” (21%). I have maintained that I do not believe government “spying” is a serious threat to personal privacy, (so long as the government in question is an accountable, transparent, and democratic government) and it seems that most people around the world generally agree that private businesses trading our information is a greater threat to privacy than government surveillance.

There is also a qualitative difference between private data collection and government surveillance. Private companies trade data for money, while the government collects information for security reasons. The government is directly accountable to people and is supposed to have societies best interests at heart, as opposed private businesses, which are accountable to markets and are motivated by profit maximization.

Despite outrage drummed up by civil rights and privacy activists, people seem to understand the different functions of these two forms of data collection. According to respondents, people were most willing to trade privacy for “being protected from terrorist and/or criminal activity” (54%) than any other reason offered (the next highest answer, for comparison, was a tie between better access to information / knowledge and easier access to healthcare information, at 45%).

There are notable limitations to determining global preferences from a 15,000 person sample that covers only 15 countries. However, the surveys results do suggest that globally people are not as concerned with government spying as one may expect.

Perhaps as governments such as the U.S. have become more willing to engage in public discourse about surveillance and offer reforms, people have had their fears assuaged. Or perhaps people, not seeing government surveillance negatively affecting their lives, are willing to trust their government in the name of security and crime prevention (especially governments that have earned that trust through a history of good governance).

I get annoying telemarketers, spam emails, and advertisement text messages from companies that have bought my personal information on a daily basis. Private companies are much more willing to use (and therefore likely to abuse) personal data. Furthermore, the conveniences this information supplies are extremely trivial when compared with security / crime protection.

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Transparency Report: TEOTAWP, Cyber-Terrorism, Civil Liberties and Invasion of Privacy

For clarity sake, TEOTAWP stands for The End of Team America World Police, a recurring theme here at NN.

Two weeks ago, President Obama addressed the nation to signal a shift away from President Bush’s “War on Terror” towards more sustainable foreign policy.

Yesterday, information was leaked about the U.S. government using “dragnet” tactics to access American’s personal telephone and internet information. There has understandably been outrage about this apparent infringement on civil rights / liberties. The purpose of this blog post is not to address this legitimate concern, but rather to explain why data-mining is perfectly consistent (and arguably a logical conclusion) of the Obama administrations stance on national security.

A recap of what Obama said, through the NN lens, can be read here:

‘Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.’

Mr. Obama rejected the notion of an expansive war on terrorism and instead articulated a narrower understanding of the mission for the United States. ‘Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,’ he said.

‘Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,’ Mr. Obama added. ‘We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.’”

“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Mr. Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

“The changes reflect a conclusion by the White House that the core of Al Qaeda has been decimated by years of strikes and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But in the speech, the president said that the threat had evolved in a complicated mosaic of dangers from affiliated groups and homegrown terrorists, like the bombers who attacked the Boston Marathon.”

“Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, issued 10 questions to the president in reaction to previews of his speech. “Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda?” he asked. “If you are scaling back the use of unmanned drones, which actions will you be taking as a substitute to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat? Is it your view that if the U.S. is less aggressive in eliminating terrorists abroad, the threat of terrorist attacks will diminish on its own?”

I, like President Obama, addressed the issue from a theoretical/normative perspective; over the medium to long run more cooperation and building stronger, more resilient geopolitical relationships will allow the U.S. to divert some resources from the DoD to the DoS, an element of “D.I.M.E” diplomacy.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expanded on Obama’s vision recently, in a more practical short-term way:

“Over all, he said, the United States will keep its “decisive military edge,” an oblique but distinct reference to American military superiority. China has announced an 11.2 percent increase in military spending this year, part of its rapid military modernization.

He stressed that new technologies would entail spending fewer resources in a smarter way…”

As Senator Boehner’s questions highlight, simply ignoring terrorism and the growing threat of cyber-terrorism will not make these issues go away. They demand a response that is more sustainable financially and more stomach-able morally. Obama did not say he would stop drone strikes, but that he would make the process more transparent. He did not say he would stop fighting terrorism, but that the way that terrorism is going to be fought is changing.

Instead of sending our young men and women to remote locations to fight unsustainable wars which tarnish America’s image and fuel anti-American sentiments, the Administration will use a fraction of those resources to protect homeland security. Obama’s statement that the “threat had evolved in a complicated mosaic of dangers from affiliated groups and homegrown terrorists, like the bombers who attacked the Boston Marathon.”, alludes to a more covert approach in combating terrorism and protecting America’s national security interests.

We must realize that everyday there are people who try to hurt Americans–Jihad does not take a vacation. The fact that the Boston Marathon attack was the first major act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11 is not a result of a diminished threat, but rather highlights the efficacy of American intelligence efforts.

To the extent that the Obama administration is embracing a a shift to D.I.M.E. (diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic) foreign policy, winding down traditional military programs requires putting more resources in diplomacy, economic aid, and intelligence gathering. As I said, far from being hypocritical, the Obama administration is being consistent; when the ultimate goal is security for American’s (and the world), putting people directly in the line of fire is counter-productive unless it is truly a last-case scenario.  

If gathering personal communications data is what it takes to unlock resources needed for important domestic programs, brings home the troops, while continuing our efforts to undermine anti-American forces at home and abroad, then we must take a practical view of the matter. Particularly in light of the cyber-security threat, monitoring internet actions seems like a logical counterweight.

There is certainly a debate to be had about protecting our civil liberties in modern times, but the “slippery-slope” argument is akin to conspiracy theory. Just because the Federal government has access to personal information does not mean it will be used for nefarious purposes. In fact, its is exactly because it is the U.S. government that we should not have these fears; as cynical as people are about the U.S. government, it is the global model for transparency, accountability, and protection of human rights (including civil rights).

For example, the U.S. government has nuclear weapons in order to maintain peace and stability. North Korea and Iran, on the other hand, are trying to develop nuclear capabilities for destabilizing purposes. That is why North Korean and Iranian nuclear capabilities, while negligible compared to American capabilities, pose a much more direct threat and have drawn a consensus response (global sanctions). If this seems like a double standard, it’s because it is. America, and other nations that have proven they are accountable and responsible, have earned the right to pursue certain questionable actions in the name of the “greater good”. The same claim, by a government that is unaccountable and systematically violates human rights, does not hold the same merit.

Nothing in this world is black-and-white. The economist in me tends to approach complex issues in cost-benefit framework. It seems to me that the benefits of collecting personal information are tangible, while the costs amount to little more than unfounded fear of “big brother”. Conspiracy theories may be a fun distraction on a rainy afternoon for some, but they have little place in practical political and foreign policy debates.

The fact that the bipartisan support exists on this issue should tell us something about its importance:

“Congressional leaders from both parties stood by a program that they had effectively sanctioned through the passage of counter-terrorism laws over the years. Senators Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, the chairwoman and vice chairman of the intelligence committee, released a joint statement defending the surveillance.

“The threat from terrorism remains very real and these lawful intelligence activities must continue, with the careful oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government,” they wrote.”