St. Charles Herald-Guide

More privacy intrusions unearthed

By Dan Juneau - August 30, 2013

Every day seems to unearth more claims of unwarranted privacy intrusions upon private citizens by the National Security Administration (NSA) and the myriad other agencies and contractors that comprise its national security apparatus. Almost as soon as President Obama, members of his administration and key members of Congress deny claims of privacy violations, more evidence appears challenging the veracity of those statements.

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, Americans strongly supported enhanced security measures designed to prevent a repeat of such onslaughts. Evidence indicating that pervasive government surveillance of private communications and data can and does occur has significantly reduced the public support for such programs. Members of both political parties in Congress have voiced strong concerns that these massive government programs are eroding constitutional protections of privacy and unlawful search and seizure.

If the NSA is insidious in its operations, there is an entity that is perhaps even more so. That distinction would belong to Google, the mammoth internet information amalgamator and manipulator. In a real sense, Google occupies a plane above that of governments by seizing upon the reality of the cyber age: those who rule the algorithms rule the world. Google is not afraid to battle governments around the globe when it comes to privacy and restraint of trade issues. It compromises only when it deems it is in its best interest to do so and goes to the wall with powerful governments when it desires to. It wins many more of those contests than it loses.

Google has many advantages when it wants to impose its will. First and foremost, it has more financial resources than many governments around the globe. It has brilliant executives and the best lawyers. National and international cyber law is in its infancy, and Google knows how to stay light years ahead of its reach. If Google were an ordinary global corporation that produced goods or brokered trade, its impact on society wouldn’t be much of a concern.

However, it is anything but a run of the mill corporation.The whole world goes to Google to search for information. It has made encyclopedias, libraries, even dictionaries almost obsolete overnight. That is power. When journalists do a Google search to develop information for a story, Google’s algorithms determine what will rise to the top. When users search for information on political candidates or officeholders, the algorithms can be manipulated to put certain information first. The head of Google has even recently announced that he will create a new service harnessing his algorithms in the service of one—and only one—of the political parties to ID and turnout voters in an unprecedented manner: Those who rule the algorithms may indeed rule the world.

Where Google potentially exceeds even the NSA in breach of privacy comes in the area of its powerful analytics. A small company, organization or even a small governmental entity can today afford data manipulation systems that are amazing in their abilities to track communications and data. The systems can determine if emails have been opened and when. Trackers can follow the trail of emails to see if the emails are forwarded and determine where they are subsequently routed. Privacy? Hardly. Most lay people can’t even begin to understand the manipulation of data that is possible with the analytic systems available today. There is no privacy in the world that Google rules.

The NSA is catching flak from Congress for activities that may cross the lines of constitutional protections. The unanswered question is, “Does Congress have the brass to take on Google in the privacy rights arena?”