NSA and Big Data Collaborating and Quid Pro Quo-ing

Big DataLast week after the Snowden-NSA spying revelations I asked the question, Big Data vs. NSA PRISM Snooping: Is There a Difference? Some people said I was nuts or stupid because the differences are “obvious.”

Paraphrasing, their arguments went: online and offline data collection for marketing purposes is relatively harmless because it’s just about ad targeting, whereas the NSA snooping is evil because of Big Brother and totalitarian government scenarios.

But those dismissals are too facile.

Over the past week I’ve also seen lots of discussion among career marketers about whether or not the online ad industry is somehow morally the same as or has any “culpability” in the NSA controversy. There are plenty of denials and “no not at all” statements going around.

I previously argued that there were strong parallels conceptually:

In the case of NSA PRISM, the agency is accused of capturing huge volumes of consumer online activity without their knowledge or consent. The government, in the wake of the revelations, said that there are safeguards built into the system and privacy is protected. Effectively the government is saying “trust us,” we’re not really doing anything improper.

With marketing-related “big data” it’s much the same. Huge volumes of consumer behavior and transaction data are being compiled, analyzed and combined. Most of the data mining from online and offline sources are being captured entirely behind the scenes without consumer awareness or (informed) consent.

A ZDNet article quotes Digital Net Agency Chief Strategy Officer Skip Graham, who says that online advertising has “helped pave the way” for PRISM by “‘softening’ consumer viewpoints on privacy issues — effectively making the public feel complacent about handing over personal information online.”

While I believe there’s truth to this theory, I’m not sure that the public is “complacent” about online privacy. There’s lots of concern about targeting, tracking and online privacy. See, for example:

And today there was a related Bloomberg article: U.S. Agencies Said to Swap Data With Thousands of Firms. The article says there’s extensive, voluntary cooperation between US companies and government security agencies. Sometimes the companies benefit directly from that cooperation in a kind of “quid pro quo” way:

Thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence, four people familiar with the process said.

It seems that there isn’t the “bright line” between government surveillance and corporate behavior that many people want to assert. The truth is more complex.

I agree that the online advertising industry, with its ad-related “surveillance” of consumer behavior has “softened” attitudes among consumers toward what the NSA is doing. I also believe there isn’t much of a defensible distinction between NSA data gathering and online “big data,” both are happening without consumer knowledge or consent (by design).

Even if consumers are upset and angry about the NSA revelations, we’ve all become so dependent upon the online tools and services implicated in the surveillance scandal (e.g., email, search, social nets, smartphones) that it’s almost impossible to imagine living without them now. For those who are upset, it’s not clear what to do — hence the sense of consumer “complacency” perhaps.

Seemingly the only real way to “fight back” (beyond political activism) is to opt-out of online activity and go back to an “analog” lifestyle. Few people are willing or able to do that.

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One Response to “NSA and Big Data Collaborating and Quid Pro Quo-ing”

  1. Jason Lancaster says at

    I commented on your post last week, and after re-reading my comments and others, I don’t think anyone called your concerns nuts or stupid (only maybe those comments came to you via another channel).

    In any case, I think you’re working awfully hard to paint over a key distinction between big data for advertising/marketing purposes and big data for NSA snooping: intent.

    Your argument seems to be that, conceptually, there are parallels between consumers and citizens being unaware of the usage of their data without their knowledge.

    If you believe that someone using your data without your explicit permission (or perhaps just without you being informed) is a violation, than you can absolutely make the connection between the NSA and “big data.”

    But why stop there? You can also rope in security cameras at stores (which record your image without your permission, and in many cases store that imagery indefinitely), gas station pumps that collect your ZIP code and then send you junk mail, etc.

    There’s an almost limitless number of examples of consumer and citizen “data” being collected without direct knowledge or approval of said citizen or consumer. It’s everywhere.

    To me, these undisclosed collection methods – and the ever growing pile of data they’re creating – are practically meaningless.

    First of all, I’m not naive enough to believe that I can exist in the modern world without leaving a digital footprint. Thus, I’m not upset about the fact that data is being collected, as I assume this collection is happening constantly.

    Second, the sheer volume of data serves to protect me. If there are exabytes of data available, that means someone needs incredible resources to try and pull MY data out of that pile. Short of a government investigation, I can’t imagine a scenario where any entity would be able to access and process all the different data sources available.

    To summarize: While I appreciate your concerns about the uniformed citizen and consumer, they seem out of place when you account for intent. The jewelry store isn’t storing footage of me shopping for some the purpose of “snooping,” it’s just a basic security measure. Likewise, marketers aren’t leveraging my online profiles to try and control me – they’re trying to show me the right ad at the right time.

    As for governments? I’m far more fearful of the consequences of rampant entitlement spending, a fractured political process, and the general stupidity of political discourse than I am about any data the NSA has scraped for Google, Facebook, etc. On a very long list of things the government does incorrectly, NSA snooping is relatively low (at least for me).

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