Eric Schmidt’s outrage at the NSA: The pot calling the kettle black?

Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s concern for citizen privacy following reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) may have broken into the company’s data streams is ironic considering the Internet giant’s own spotty record on privacy.

In an interview with CNN Monday, Schmidt expressed outrage at new revelations that the NSA had allegedly managed to tap into and collect millions of data records from fiber optic cables linking the global data centers of Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other Internet firms.

“The fact of the mater is citizens have a right to privacy in democracies,” Schmidt told  CNN.  

Google, along with Facebook, Microsoft, and others, had earlier sent an open letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee calling for changes to the NSA’s data collection activities and better privacy protections for the public.

Schmidt’s concern for privacy is commendable but odd. Few on the planet harvest, store, and analyze more Internet user data than the likes of Google, Facebook and others. The Googles and the Facebooks of the world know more about who you are, where you live, what you browse, who your friends are, what you buy, where you shop, what you read and what you watch than probably even the NSA.

Internet companies have raised user tracking and monitoring to a fine art.  And the scary thing is they are just getting started.

Last week, the  Wall Street Journal had an article about Facebook testing out a new technology that will let the company track the cursor movements of users on its site.

According to the Journal, the tool will let Facebook collect data on “minute interactions” with its content including how long a user’s cursor hovers over particular sections of its website, whether a user’s newsfeed is viewable at a given moment and other such information.  The data collected by the tool, when combined with all the demographic and behavioral data Facebook already has on its members, will apparently enable even more precise targeting of advertisements to users.

Google and Microsoft are working on tools that will let them monitor and track users across all their applications both on the Web and on mobile platforms. Instead of cookies, both companies could soon begin using unique identifiers for tracking user behavior across multiple applications. It’s only a matter of time before all the data that is being aggregated online is merged with data from the physical world to create incredibly detailed profiles of every single consumer out there. 

Internet companies appear convinced that the best way to make money online is to stalk users—to watch their every move, snoop in on every conversation, monitor every social interaction, scan emails and track movements so they can give marketers a way to deliver perfectly targeted ads.

It’s a logic that assumes Internet users are perennially looking to buy something or be persuaded into making a choice of one sort or the other every time they go online.  It also seems to assume that the only reason why everyone is not rushing out to spend their every last dime is because they haven’t been served with properly targeted ads yet.

Most people understand that Internet companies need to make money. That’s why consumers willingly share information about themselves in exchange for a free Internet. What the vast majority doesn’t realize is just how much information about them is being collected, aggregated and scrutinized on a continuous basis by Internet companies.

It’s like what happened with the NSA. Most people knew that as a spy agency, the NSA probably collected a lot of data and listened in to a lot of communications to protect the nation against a variety of threats. Few though, guessed just how extensive and intrusive that surveillance really is, which is why everybody, including Schmidt, is so outraged now.

Granted, private companies have a more benign reason for harvesting and analyzing private data than a spy agency like the NSA. And it’s true the government can do a lot more with the data to affect individual freedoms and rights than any private company. can.

But that doesn’t change the fact that many Internet companies are awfully invasive of privacy as well. So when they accuse the government of breaching individual privacy rights, it’s a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

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