The debate sparked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has partly prompted the drafting of this bill. © Vincent Yu/AP/Press Association Images

Why do we prefer Google to bankers?

The less we know, the less we care
December 11, 2014

Banks and governments are huge enterprises with vested interests that do not always coincide with the interests of the individuals involved with them. That is true of Google and Facebook, too. Yet people complain a lot about the two former and relatively little about the two latter. Why?

Consider Google. It watches you; it monitors the sites you land on not just so that it can target advertising at you, but so that it can select for you the kind of information it thinks you will like, when you are seeking information. That is disturbing. It profiles you. It is keeping a record of your online activities. It is doing this for commercial reasons, without malice aforethought, certainly; but it is creating something that in the wrong hands could be a devastating tool for ill.

If that sounds like the paranoia of the conspiracy theorist—well, we live in an age when paranoid fears are coming true. Our hasty willing embrace of the facilities of communication, enquiry and entertainment available via our electronic devices, has stripped us naked to the view of any public or private agency that wishes to know what we say, what we think, what we do and want, who we associate with, our location, our movements, how much we spend and on what, our loves and hates, our sex lives.

It is as if the walls and roofs of our houses have turned to glass, our very thoughts amplified into audible speech, our footprints set aglow with bright individual colours that trace all our journeys.

Could it paradoxically be that because the activities of banks and governments are more transparent than those of Google and the myriad other—mainly private, unaccountable, scarcely known—agencies that watch us in cyberspace where we now spend so much of our time, that we complain about them and criticise them? Is it because we know what they do that we can know what we dislike about them? Is it because there is remedy and recourse against them for their more egregious failings that we can complain about them—whereas what lies behind the little red eyes out there in the dark of cyberspace is opaque and unchallengeable, and that is why we do not complain about it?

The answer is yes, in part at least. At present there is a confused and confusing situation pertaining to the dangers that the cyber revolution poses to our privacy and autonomy as individuals, and at the same time the opportunities it offers to penetrate the secrecy of governments and other agencies. Organisations such as Hacked Off, which campaigns against press invasions of privacy, and the Logan Symposium, which brings together “hacktivists,” whistleblowers and investigative journalists, address in sometimes competing ways the problems and possibilities at issue. Where is the balance, and where the congruence of interests?

In the ideal, we want to know what big organisations are up to, while keeping our private lives private; but of course some of the big organisations are worried about what some people do in private—making bombs and plotting atrocities, for example—and in the interests of the rest of us subject us to surveillance and invasions of privacy. In times of threat it might be wise to accept the necessity for this, providing it is properly monitored, and limited in duration to the time of threat itself. It is less clear that the convenience of having Google inform of us of goods and services that match our profile, as an unmonitored and permanent exercise, justifies being the subject of such massive data collection, which could be sold to, or hacked into by, other less benign agencies.

Privacy is a thing of the past. The inefficiency and disjointedness of data collection and analysis in pre-computer times was a wonderful protector of civil liberties. The mere existence of lightning-speed capacity to amass and collate information about individuals is of course not a reason why it should be done—though there is an unhappy propensity for people to think that because something can be done, that is reason enough to do it. We could have chosen to construct these new technologies so that their default is to conceal rather than reveal facts about individual users that are no one else’s business. We did not do it, with the result we know.

And yet we hardly complain about it, reserving our criticisms for the devils we know. The moral of this tale is: let us find out more about the agencies watching us; let us demand that they be transparent; and if we find cause, let us complain.