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Beyond the NSA: What About Big Data Abuse by Corporations, Politicians?

Surveillance cameras near the US Capitol, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)Taking steps to end, or at the very least to constrain, the federal government’s practice of storing information on the personal communications of Americans is a good thing. There is every reason to respect initiatives that seek to prevent the National Security Agency’s metadata programs from making a mockery of the right to privacy outlined in the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.

But the moves that President Obama announced Friday to impose more judicial oversight on federal authorities who might “listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails” and the steps that may be taken by Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials to check and balance the NSA following the submission of proposals on March 28 ought not be seen mistaken for a restoration of privacy rights in America.

What the president and his aides are talking about—in response to revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, congressional objections and public protests – are plans to place some controls on the NSA and perhaps to keep most data in “private hands.”

But what controls will there be on those private hands?

As long as we’re opening a discussion about data mining, might we consider the fact that it’s not just the government that’s paying attention to our communications—and to what they can reveal about our personalities, lifestyles, values, spending habits and political choices.

There’s a reason the NSA has been interested in accessing the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. When you’re mining, you go where the precious resources are, and technology companies have got the gold.

Data is digital gold. Corporations know that. They’re big into data mining.

This data mining, and the commercial and political applications that extend from it, gets far less attention than the machinations of the NSA or other governmental intelligence agencies. Tech publications and savvy writers such as Jaron Lanier recognize these concerns. The Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Senate Commerce Committee have taken some tentative steps to address a few of the worst abuses. But that’s not enough, especially when, as Fordham University’s Alice E. Marwick noted in a smart recent piece for The New York Review of Books,

there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all.

Significantly, it is not just financial profit that data can yield.

As Robert W. McChesney and I note in Dollarocracy: How the Money-and-Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), data is also mined by those who seek power.

Political candidates, political parties, Super PACs and dark-money groups are among the most ambitious data miners around. They use data to supercharge their fund-raising, to target multimillion-dollar ad buys and to stir passions and fears at election time.

Both parties do it. All major candidates do it. Obama did it better than Romney in 2012, and that played a critical role in providing the president with the resources and the strategies that allowed him to easily defeat a well-funded and aggressive challenger. The Grand Old Party’s response was to begin hiring the best and the brightest technical talent. A recent headline announced: “Republican National Committee to Build Platform to Share Voter Data.” Another reported: “RNC Pledges $20 Million to Build Data-Sharing Operation.”

So campaigns are going to do more mining. And so are the billionaires who fund so-called “independent” political operations. Last spring, Politico announced: “Karl Rove, Koch Brothers Lead Charge to Control Republican Data.”

Data already drives the money-and-media election complex that is rapidly remaking American democracy into an American dollarocracy, where election campaigns are long on technical savvy but short, very short, on vision.

So, give the president credit for wading into the debate about how the government uses and abuses phone data. Give key members of Congress, like Jerry Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, credit for pointing out that what the president has proposed is “not enough” to “safeguard against indiscriminate, bulk surveillance of everyday Americans.”

But then go the next step. Recognize that addressing governmental actions and abuses does not begin to restore privacy rights. For that to happen, there must be recognition that Marwick is right to argue: “While closer scrutiny of the NSA is necessary and needed, we must apply equal pressure to private corporations to ensure that seemingly harmless targeted mail campaigns and advertisements do not give way to insidious and dangerous violations of personal privacy.”

And that recognition must extend beyond concern regarding abusive commercial applications to include an examination of and responses to new approaches to fund-raising and campaigning that have the potential to warp our politics—and democracy itself.