Terrible Arguments in Defense of Government Spying

Andrew Sullivan has, much to my disappointment, reacted to the recent revelations of government spying with a yawn. And his readers are emailing him some absolutely terrible arguments about why they are unconcerned about it, particularly this inane argument comparing private companies to the government. Here’s one of his readers:

But here’s what I don’t get: the sudden consternation over this from libertarians. Really? You’re shocked – shocked! – to find that there’s data mining going on here? You have no problem voluntarily posting your life’s narrative and personal information on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, PayPal, etc., and you’re ticked at the federal government, which cannot get out of its own way?

Devil’s Advocate: We hand over our names, checking accounts, credit card numbers, social security numbers, birth dates, photos, interests, political leanings, browsing histories, etc. to hundreds – if not thousands – of private companies without batting an eye. We’ve been doing it for upwards of 20 years now. And now we suddenly get angry that the government can see that information? What about the companies themselves? It’s not like they have the best track record of “protecting” their customers over the past five to ten years. Where has the anger been over that?

Since when did we as a society place absolute trust in private companies, whose lone basic motivation is monetary profit, to handle our information better than the government?

I can do nothing to oust the CEOs of Facebook or Google. But I can change (or at least have a hand in changing) the CEO of the Federal Government once every four years, and the board members once every two years. A government’s overarching motivation, in my opinion, is to protect its citizens from threats internal and external. If a government fails to do that, it ceases to be a government.

I realize there’s a bunch of Revolutionary 1760s Bostonian types that will scream “Give me liberty or give me death” back at me, but on the face of it, it makes no sense to me. Maybe that’s because it’s 2013, I’m a millennial, and we have the Internet now and whatnot. But I actively participate in the workings of my government at the very least by voting. I cannot participate in the workings of ANY company I interact with. (And don’t tell me I can just stop buying stuff from them. I’m not going off the grid any time soon.)

So I’m supposed to trust them with my information more than the government? Am I missing something here, or am I just as naive?

You’re being quite illogical for so many reasons. First of all, you do have some recourse against the corporate tracking online. You can block tracking cookies, for example. Far more importantly, are those things really analogous? Google tracks your searches and browsing history — if you let them — and use it to target advertising at you that they think you’re more likely to be interested in. But they aren’t trying to find things to arrest you for or that they can use to blackmail you (again, not a hypothetical; the government has actually done this). Google can’t destroy your life.

And the comparison to Facebook and Twitter is even worse. You aren’t putting information out there for the world to see, you’re putting it out there for those you designate as recipients to see. And the choice of what to reveal is yours, not the government’s. No one can listen in on our private conversations unless we let them.

The conclusion is just as bad as the premise. Are there reasons to be concerned about corporate tracking of our online lives? Of course. But how does that diminish the problem of the government violating the 4th Amendment and listening in on our private exchanges with almost no oversight? Just a bad, bad argument.

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