The NSA is not the same as GOOGLE: Five Words Spell it Out

The recent disclosures about the NSA’s universal surveillance of domestic telephone and internet activity has generated considerable controversy, drawing supporters and opponents from both liberal and conservative members of the public, the media, and politicians. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed support for the surveillance programs in the name of national security. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed criticism of these programs in the name of the Fourth Amendment and other constitutional protections of privacy.

I’m inclined to avoid the distractions associated with the personalities involved: the leaker Edward Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald, the various legislators and government officials who have expressed judgments about Snowden’s actions, and opinions of the President’s trustworthiness compared to his predecessor and possible successors.

I prefer to focus on the meme that has been adopted by many complacent citizens, namely, that the NSA is not different from “Google,” which in this case is a metaphor for all of the corporations that have obtained private information about us and use it – if they choose – to keep track of our whereabouts and target us for advertising.

I have heard this meme recited frequently by liberal/progressive media personalities (the ones I mostly listen to). Unwilling to risk all of their credibility on their faith in the current president, they resort to the false equivalence between the NSA’s potential knowledge of the content of our communications and “Google’s” access to our private communications and personal data.

The equivalence is entirely false, largely due to five words included in all of our online transactions with the corporate world: “terms of service,” and “privacy policy.” These phrases define a legal relationship between us and the various internet resources that we use, which certainly include social networking, but also online banking, online shopping, online subscriptions, software downloads, and all other internet business transactions. These phrases also apply to software downloaded from disks. They constitute the “small print” found in all legal documents. It is prepared by lawyers and placed in a place where we can read it if we choose to, but made so boring, tedious, technical, and disconnected from the main topic of interest to us (how to start using the program) that we are likely to skip it.

When we install a software program or initiate an online service, we are usually required to click on a box or hypertext link to acknowledge that we have read and agree to the “Terms of Service” and sometimes also the “Privacy Policy” prior to moving on to the next step in our relationship to the service provider. In fact, the phrases are generally highlighted so that we can hyperlink to them. Nonetheless, in our eagerness to get started, we generally click on the acknowledgement without reading one word of the terms and conditions to which we have agreed.

The above is not the example of carelessly misplaced trust that characterizes the facile acceptance of the evolving surveillance state on the part of some Obama apologists. It is a case of our tendency to overlook the small print only to later take umbrage at the results of the policy’s implementation. We can choose not to “sign” the agreement; we can forego the benefit that we seek from the business relationship. We can even attempt (although almost certainly with success) to negotiate terms and conditions that we consider more favorable to us. Furthermore, should we believe ourselves to be  wronged, we have legal recourse in the form of arbitration or a lawsuit.

This is not at all the case with government surveillance. The only terms and conditions to which we can refer are classified and known only to certain members of the government and certain security contractors. In fact, we don’t know how these “terms and conditions” actually affect us. Their legal enforcement is under the supervision of a secret court where the government presents its case without the troublesome presence of opposing counsel.  Barred from the corridors of power, separated from decision makers by a wall of silence, and shut out by massive doors of secrecy, citizens are asked to place their trust in wisdom and goodness of our leaders.

The only real commonality between the NSA and “Google” is the basis of their relationships to those affected by them: the US Constitution. The Constitution provides the framework for all laws governing commerce and it establishes the limits of the government’s power over citizens.  The Constitution determines the scope of “Google’s” power over us as well as the NSA’s. Under the present circumstances, we can know – if we choose – the parameters of our relationship with “Google.” What we can know about our relationship to the NSA is cannot be revealed under the rules of those who have decided what the Constitution says about our freedoms.

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2 Comments on “The NSA is not the same as GOOGLE: Five Words Spell it Out”

  1. Ana King says:

    Well stated! You have clearly identified the difference between the veneer of optional vs involuntary abrogation of privacy. However, since the United States is a CORPORATION and not a republic, and wehave tacitly foregone our rights by accepting our status as “citizens, ” we will face endless forms of control and manipulation unless/until we take the steps to declare ourselves sovereign people.

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    • wsettles says:

      No, the US is still a republic. The political elites are generally corporatists who have ceded more and more government power to the corporations (e.g., education, corrections, war-making). The corporations, in turn, maintain the tenure of legislators and agency officials through bribery of one form or another. All “legal.” Meanwhile the corporations have long ago abandoned any pretext of loyalty to the US. See, for example, The Sovereign State of ITT, by Anthony Sampson, written in 1973, about corporate power during the Nixon era.

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