When You’re Tired of Being Mad at Facebook, Remember the NSA
Two big privacy stories popped up recently. One involved a social network slightly changing how it presents data shared by some of its members. The other involved a secret government agency extracting and keeping private data about hundreds of thousands of people who were not targets of its investigations.
The news of Facebook’s experiment in “emotional contagion” dominated the news. The Washington Post’s frightening story on the latest Edward Snowden-sourced revelation of the National Security Agency’s data-hoarding habits did not get quite the same attention.
Twitter statistics from Topsy Labs show discussions of “Facebook experiment” peaking far higher (23,767 tweets on June 29) than those of “NSA data” (7,092 on July 5). Only if you step back to the generic searches “Facebook” and “NSA” does the agency top the conversation — in a way that bumps up only slightly after the Post’s disclosures.
News coverage followed suit. There were about seven times as many Google News hits on Monday afternoon for “Facebook experiment” than there were for ”NSA data” when that story broke.
This is not right.
The NSA is a bigger deal than Facebook
Let’s review the differences between the data collection practices of Facebook and the NSA.
• For Facebook to get your data, you or your friends have to provide it voluntarily. The NSA, on the other hand, isn’t supposed to collect data at all from Americans, but its dragnet surveillance — until recently that included information flowing between overseas data centers of such U.S. firms as Google and Yahoo — has often swept up details from U.S. citizens.
• You can delete your Facebook account, and the data stored with it will vanish, too. Good luck just asking the NSA if it has data about you; ProPublica reporter Jeff Larson sent in a Freedom of Information Act request and got a we-can’t-say reply, as did a friend who tried the same tactic.
This weekend’s news about the NSA represents the most troubling disclosures since, well, last week’s report that searching for information about such privacy tools as Tor routers can put you under the security agency’s magnifying glass.
The problem isn’t so much that the NSA’s searches collected information from innocent bystanders under loose rules — the Post’s report suggests the NSA could see you as possibly foreign and therefore snooping-eligible if you used a proxy server to watch the World Cup — but that it made no attempt to dump that data after determining that it was irrelevant.
And then it placed so little control over that information that a contract employee could take an archive with him (something the NSA suggested was inconceivable) and hand it to a newspaper. I hope my former employer (I used to work at the Washington Post) is taking exceptional care to protect this personal data.
Why did the Facebook experiment strike such a chord?
On the other hand, I see fair reasons why the Facebook study could upset so many people.