Snowden Big Data Fallout in Quotes

The fallout from the Snowden scandal continues to fall on Big Data and microtargeting in The New York Times (and elsewhere).

In an article in today’s edition, David Streitfeld and Quentin Hardy quote a large cast of people in the tech field. It’s interesting that there weren’t any by government officials. The only non-techie quote is by Snowden himself. So I figure I’ll add my (and Misty’s) thoughts on each statement recorded in the article.

Les Earnest, a retired Stanford computer scientist who built something that resembled Facebook nine years before the inventor of Facebook was born:

“Most of the people who developed the network are bothered by the way it is being misused. From the beginning we worried about governments getting control. Well, our government has finally found a way to tap in.”

First, Misty noted that it had been tapped, not controlled. And it certainly isn’t controlled to the extent that it is in China, North Korea and other countries. To even suggest this is something new (even in the U.S.) is a bit ahistorical. Further, the U.S. government has always been tapped-in to the Internet. Who used the Internet in its early days and provided the most serious “innovation”? Grant-funded researchers, universities and the Defense Department, among other government-funded programs and offices.

Adriano Farano, co-founder of Watchup, which makes an iPad app that builds personalized newscasts:

“The success of any Silicon Valley consumer company is based not only on the value their products bring to users but also on the level of trust they can establish. What is at stake here is the credibility of our entire ecosystem.”

As Misty said, “This is true in any business.” Trust is key. And with this scandal, it is especially the responsibility of the corporate and tech world to protect our data – or not collect it.

Christopher Clifton, a Purdue computer scientist who has done extensive work on methods of data collection that preserve privacy:

“We’re pushing our government to protect us, and we’re also busy putting more and more of our information out there for people to look at. The fact that some of that data is indeed going to be looked at might be disturbing but it shouldn’t be surprising.”

My point exactly – except I think some may be surprised by the amount of data that has been collected and its current use. Then they may demand more control over its future use.

Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency worker who disclosed on Sunday that he was the one who leaked government surveillance documents to The Guardian newspaper. In an interview with the newspaper, he called the Internet “the most important invention in all of human history.”

This is moronic. The most important invention in human history? Yeah. I don’t think so. But he redeems himself with:

“I don’t see myself as a hero because what I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”

But the corporations and tech evangelists say, “Give us your data and we will free you and make you creative and innovative.” I hope you’re starting to hate that last word, and the low bar that has been set to satisfy its application, as much as I do.

Bob Taylor, a computer scientist who played a major role in the 1960s in formulating what would become the Internet, on President Obama security over privacy statement:

“I think that’s a dangerous statement. The government should have told us it was doing this. And that suggests the more fundamental problem: that we’re not in control of our government.”

We could go on and on about the amount and quality of control any population has ever had over their governments (a tangent that I’m certain Misty and I will pursue later). But we’re no more in control of corporations using our data. Sure, if you bury yourself deep into the terms of service and other agreements required to join various online services, and you still must agree to join. There’s no negotiating. And let’s not forget that corporations are the ones who gave the data to the government.

Bob Metcalfe, the acclaimed inventor of the standard method of connecting computers in one location, wrote on Twitter that he was less worried about whatever the National Security Agency might be doing “than about how Obama Regime will use their data to suppress political opposition (e.g. me).”

Metcalfe is also a University of Texas at Austin professor of innovation – whatever the hell that means. I suppose it’s to sit around and tap out throwaway politically driven tweets. I’ve found him to be a bit ridiculous before. Nonetheless, he’s seriously less worried about the NSA than the “Obama regime”? Will it be okay when the “Cruz regime” is in office? Or back when the “Bush regime” was in charge? But aside from his political nonsense, I can see the future possibilities of how Big Data, microtargeting and nudging could drastically change people.

In 1999, Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, summed up the valley’s attitude toward personal data in what became a defining comment of the dot-com boom:

“You have zero privacy. Get over it.”

Wow. Is there really a better, more bald-faced explanation of tech evangelists’ true feelings? Maybe the real reason many techies are gnashing their teeth over these leaks is because – well, just like the Obama administration – their cooperation was leaked.

And then he says:

“Should you be afraid if AT&T has your data? Google They’re private entities. AT&T can’t hurt me. Jerry Brown and Barack Obama can.”

But arguing that computer makers have some role in creating a surveillance state, he said, “is like blaming gun manufacturers for violence, or a car manufacturer for drunk driving.” The real problem, he said, is: “The scope creep of the government. I think it’s great they’re looking for the next terrorist. Then I wonder if they’re going to arrest me, or snoop on me.”

Let’s look beyond his, like Metcalfe’s, paranoia about the Obama administration and Jerry Brown. I can agree with him about the snooping. I don’t like it either. I don’t like where it could lead us. But I also don’t like what corporations are doing and can do with my data.

With enough data (and it doesn’t take all that much), insurance companies can find new ways and reasons to deny coverage or increase costs, employers can go even deeper into your personal history without your explicit permission to perform such background checks. With prediction software coming online, companies may begin to “predict” whether you will become liability or an asset. They can hurt you, McNealy. Or, should I say, you can hurt us. And you really, really scare me.

Ray Ozzie, the former software chief at Microsoft:

“I hope that people wake up, truly wake up, to what’s happening to society, from both a big brother perspective and little brother perspective.”

Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner! (Now if only we knew the extent of his ex-employer’s cooperation with the government.)

Aaron Levie, the founder of, a popular file-sharing system, initially joked on Twitter that Prism was simply putting people’s Gmail, Google, Facebook and Skype data all in one place.

“The N.S.A. just beat out like 30 start-ups to this idea.”

Zing! Who said the government doesn’t innovate.

“The most important issue here is transparency and our lack of visibility around how our data is being used. The government and the tech industry clearly will need to come together to create a better model for this.”

I’ve been saying this for a while. The tech industry and government need to get together and work on policy (not necessarily spying). This is my problem with Sunil Paul at SideCar and the majority of edtech folks. They are unwilling to engage in serious policy discussions beyond ensuring there are enough visas for cheap foreign labor.

Gordon Eubanks, a valley entrepreneur for 30 years, can see both sides of the argument over privacy and security. Until it is resolved, he said,

“I’ve just become really careful about what I put out there. I never put online anything about where I live, my family, my pets. I’m even careful about what I ‘like.’ ”

That may be extreme, but useful, advice. Be careful what you share.

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