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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: Can Social Media Postings Be Considered “Warning Signs”?

According to his army psychiatrist, Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez showed “no sign of likely violence, either to himself or to others.” While it may be possible for someone to “snap” and go on a shooting spree without warning, I have trouble believing this was the case in this incident.

Lopez had a history of depression and anxiety, yet he was still able to purchase a firearm legally (at the same store the 2009 Fort Hood shooter bought his weapon), underscoring the need for stronger background check laws for gun purchases.

“We have very strong evidence that he [Lopez] had a medical history that indicated an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition,” Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Army’s III Corps at Fort Hood, said of Lopez. “There was no indication that he was targeting specific people.”

3 people are dead 16 more are wounded. The questions we as a nation now face are:

1) Could this tragedy have been prevented? (were there warning signs?)

2) How can we prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future?

These two questions are obviously related. If there were warning signs, then recognizing these signs can help prevent similar tragedies from happening.

The warning signs, beyond Lopez’s mental health record, came in the form of Facebook posts:

1) On March 1, the same day he purchased the .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol he used in the attack, Specialist Lopez wrote an especially angry and vaguely threatening post. “My spiritual peace has all gone away, I am full of hate, I believe now the devil is taking me. I was robbed last night and I’m sure it was two flacos. Green light and thumbs down. It’s just that easy …”

2) In a Facebook post, Specialist Lopez said of the Newtown massacre: “For me, the direct responsibility for this situation is with the psychiatrist, who didn’t uncover Adam’s level of dangerousness so that he could be restricted.”

Read posthumously, these posts depict someone who was unable to grasp the concept of personal accountability. On the other hand, hindsight is always 20-20; these posts were separated by over a year, during which time Lopez probably made many posts which are irrelevant to his mental state.

Taken separately, each of these pieces of “evidence”; a questionable mental health history, delusional Facebook posts, and a gun purchase; could not be considered a red flag–it would be impossible to police all social media platforms. But taken together, they form the profile of an individual who is very likely a risk to himself and others.

What someone posts on social media can get them fired or (if a public figure) publicly ridiculed–American’s clearly take social media postings seriously. What can we do when someone writes about hurting themselves or others on social media? At what point does protecting a persons right to privacy prohibit the ability to protect another persons right to life? As a social scientist, I am constantly looking for “information”; is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable source of information in social media posts?

I already alluded to the need for stronger background checks for gun purchases, another preventative measure is greater access to mental healthcare, which I believe should be a human right (it is currently viewed as a luxury for the wealthy). Specialist Lopez was covered as an Army employee; what about people out there without mental health coverage? Obamacare has gone a long way in rewriting insurance guidelines to cover mental healthcare, and subsidizes plans for those who cannot afford insurance on their own, but what about people who are still not covered? Given the various ramifications of untreated mental illness (crime, poverty, etc.), is it time to consider investing more tax dollars into walk-in mental health clinics? 

These issues, privacy and security, lend themselves to heated debates. I leave my readers with these loaded questions to ponder.