The Market for Online Privacy Is Broken

by By Brendan Greeley,  |  published on June 13, 2013

Yesterday, Google (GOOG) asked Attorney General Eric Holder for permission to publish the number of national security requests it receives through the FISA court, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests. The company seems worried that not enough has been made public about the NSA’s Prism program. It wants to say more. “Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” the letter to Holder reads. “Google has nothing to hide.”

Surveillance and wire-tapping used to be expensive. What we now call “gathering metadata” we used to call “tailing:” sitting in a car, noting comings and goings. Actually recording what we now call “content” required a trip to a telephone switching box with some alligator clips, or even into a home with a bug. This stuff used to suck up agent time and agency money. Christopher Soghoian, a privacy researcher and activist now with the American Civil Liberties Union, laid this out last year in his doctoral thesis, The Spies We Trust: Third Party Service Providers and Law Enforcement Surveillance (pdf). Soghoian’s thesis is the best possible backgrounder you could read to understand last week’s revelations of NSA surveillance. Forget natural law or federal code (for now); the problem with data surveillance is economic.

Metadata—information about a thing, rather than the thing itself—has always been valuable. But collecting it used to be thankless and expensive. Think of the actual physical index cards that libraries used to organize in card catalogues. Each card displayed author, title, Dewey Decimal number—the metadata for one book. Someone actually had to type and amend that card by hand, which constrained the metadata that any library could reasonably collect. A limited number of subject categories for the book, for example. No chapter headings.

Yahoo’s (YHOO) first maps of the Web were akin to a card catalogue, ordering Web pages one by one into categories, a human decision each time. Google improved on this by treating incoming links as metadata, a way to order the importance of a page. Then the tools of the Web flipped. In the early 2000s, new Web services allowed us to enter our own information: to blog, to tweet, to tag, to like. In each case, we created metadata about ourselves. This had always been valuable, but suddenly we had an incentive to write our own card catalogue entries. In return for a community, or even just a personalized stream of music, we happily provided metadata. This is the basic transaction behind every free Web service.

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