The idea that Google and Facebook are shocked — Shocked! — that someone is gathering terabytes of people’s personal data without their knowledge or consent may have caused snorts of derision around the world Monday.
But that doesn’t mean that their concern is not well placed, or that it should not lead to major revisions in the way the United States conducts intelligence operations. Because it is. And they should.
Google, Facebook and six of their fellow Internet giants Monday set aside some of the biggest business rivalries since the Gilded Age to raise a joint call for the National Security Agency, CIA and allied intelligence agencies to be reined in by President Obama and by Congress. They were joined by Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, AOL, Yahoo! and LinkedIn.
These outfits make much of their astronomical incomes by providing the hardware or the software needed to ship their customers’ data around the planet at the speed of light, store it in massive servers and, yes, sometimes, mine the data for information that can be used to match online advertising to individuals whose histories suggest an interest in specific products or services.
That business model has enough trouble already, as many people are reasonably concerned that their personal information is going to be used against their sales resistance. The further knowledge, coming from the revelations from rogue NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the U.S. and U.K. are gathering billions of records of cell phone calls, Internet searches, even online gaming chats is the last thing the industry needs.
Governments, corporations and individuals in Europe and South America are royally steamed at the news. Their willingness to use American-made hardware and American-based networks are seriously undermined by the knowledge that governments with no specific target can sift through their data for purposes unknown — and unknowable.
What the Internet barons want, what all of us should demand, is a surveillance system that recalls what the Fourth Amendment demands: Government searches that are targeted at specific persons and specific information, authorized by warrants and overseen by an independent judiciary.
They also want the ability to go into the secret court that oversees electronic surveillance, argue against overbroad or mistargeted subpoenas and warrants and to go public with whatever the government is demanding and whatever they are doing to comply or resist.
That is exactly what should happen. And soon.