According to ITU, the United Nations agency for communication technologies, over 3 billion people currently use the Internet. Every day, these people use sites like Facebook and Twitter free of charge… or at least that’s what we think. While sites like these do not cost money to use, we do pay for the ability to use these sites with something quite valuable: our data. And it’s not just sites like Facebook that collect our data, but government agencies like the NSA (National Security Agency) as well. In this article we will explore why these organizations collect data and the problems that occur from that data collection. Finally, some have expressed concern over their privacy, so we will briefly investigate how some people have attempted to regain some of their privacy through things like “The Right To Be Forgotten.”
Facebook appears to be innocent enough at a glance: it’s a site where you can share ideas with your friends, and there are even privacy features so that people you don’t know can’t access information about you. This privacy, however, only relates to Facebook’s users. The site can access your information at any time and actually uses your information to make a profit. Lots of people put a ton of information about themselves on Facebook, like their favorite music, their political views, and even their location. Facebook is able to gather all this information and sell ads that are targeted at specific audiences. Every time we like a page, react to a post, or comment on something Facebook learns a little more about us, and they use this information to make a profit.
Now, none of this seems too shady as long as Facebook is simply selling the data to advertisers. After all, they are just like any other business, and they need to make a profit. However, we have to realize that we create the value for Facebook. By creating posts and sharing pictures, we are actually working for Facebook and allowing it to make large amounts of money, while we receive no monetary gain. It’s like telling a factory worker that they can socialize with their co-workers and use their machines to make products, but the worker isn’t paid and receives no real benefit. According to CNN, as of July, Facebook was worth around $350 billion. On the other hand, Twitter, according to Forbes, was estimated to be worth $15.7 billion. All of this value has been generated by data we forgot existed, and while Twitter and Facebook made billions of dollars, the users received nothing, despite the fact that the users created all of this value.
While sites like Facebook collect your data to make a profit, the NSA collects your data in order to defend the United States. On the NSA’s website, they say that their goals are to save lives, advance the goals of the United States, and, ironically, “protect privacy rights.” The last goal is certainly an interesting one, given the fact that, according to ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom, the NSA collects metadata of phone calls (how long the call lasted, who made and received the call), “email, Facebook posts and instant messages for an unknown number of people, via PRISM”, “massive amounts of raw Internet traffic”, and “the contents of an unknown number of phone calls”. ProPublica also says, “The NSA records as much information as it can, subject to technical limitations.”
The NSA collects a massive amount of data, so much that it would be impossible to go through it all. While the agency ignores and forgets about the overwhelming majority of data it collects, it targets certain people to collect more specific information on them, including, according to ProPublica, the audio of phone calls and the entire contents of emails. This type of targeting acts almost as a sort of online stop and frisk (hopefully no one tells Donald Trump that). According to the New York Times, a judge found that stop and frisk resulted in a “policy of indirect racial profiling.” As a counter-terrorism agency, one has to suspect who the agency is targeting. According to The Intercept, the NSA monitored the emails of multiple Muslim-Americans, including a politician, lawyers, academics, and civil rights activists. In a different article from The Intercept, it was reported that “the NSA’s mass surveillance programs do not have a track record — before or after Snowden — of identifying or thwarting actual large-scale terrorist plots.” Later the article states that “before Snowden, the NSA wasn’t able to provide a single substantiated example of its surveillance dragnet preventing any domestic attack at all.” So, while the data that comes from most of us will be forgotten, some people are targeted for unsubstantiated reasons. While safety is important, so is the right not to be racially profiled.
Right To Be Forgotten
In an increasingly less private world, there are still some people that want to hold onto at least some of their privacy. In 2014, Europe’s highest court ruled that Europeans have the “right to be forgotten.” This means that anyone who felt search engine results misrepresented them could get the link removed from the search engine, although the original web page would still appear. While the intent behind the ruling is certainly encouraging, there is the fear that the ruling could have a negative impact. For example, according to the New York Times, news organizations like BBC and The Telegraph were angry over the fact that hundreds of links to news articles had been deleted because of the ruling. However, The Guardian reported in 2015 that of 220,000 individual requests made to Google to remove links from their search engine, about 95% of those were for private personal information, of which 95% came from the general public, while 5% came from criminals, politicians, and high-profile public figures. About half the requests were granted, so not all of the requested links are actually removed, which is encouraging for organizations like BBC and The Telegraph. While the “right to be forgotten” is not without its flaws, it is one of the steps being taken to counter our current surveillance state, which organizations like Facebook and the NSA have helped to create.