Eight Corporate Privacy Invaders That Know Way More About You Than the NSA

run_away_pythonThroughout the month-long fracas surrounding the Edward Snowden leaks and the ensuing debate about the role and even the very existence of the NSA, there’s a massive elephant in the room, and it isn’t Glenn Greenwald’s rapidly inflating sense of self-importance. The thing that almost nobody is talking about or reacting to is the fact that private corporations possess much more of your private data than anything the NSA might have stored in its underground supervillain lair.

And if you weren’t aware of this already, you haven’t been paying attention.

This isn’t to say we should ignore any abuses of power or criminal wrongdoing inside the corridors of government power. There hasn’t really been any hard evidence of illegal activity at the NSA and, as creepy as it might seem as was gawk at the sausage-making, the NSA is ultimately accountable to the American people since, as we’ve discussed many times, the government is made up of We The People and multiple layers of checks embedded into the system. We don’t enjoy anything remotely close to this kind of sway over private corporations, accountable to investors and boards of directors alone. We know this since, after all, a central mission of American liberalism is to maintain an incredulous eye on corporations, be they Goldman-Sachs, Walmart, Monsanto or Halliburton. We also kind of support a strong central government, too, unless I missed the memos.

This is why the lopsided outrage directed at the NSA and not corporate privacy violations is puzzling to me, especially among the most vocal Snowden supporters. One reason for this disconnect has to do with our collective fealty to corporations as part of a consumer society. No matter how awesomely liberal you think you are or how many #OWS hashtags you post, you’re part of it. And another reason for the disconnect has to do with a lack of understanding of exactly what the NSA does in the face of well-orchestrated link-bait and scary headlines.

Briefly put, we know the NSA might “inadvertently” capture electronic metadata from U.S. persons (USPs) in its effort to grab metadata from overseas terrorism targets. But we also know that when this happens, the USP data is anonymized, encrypted and eventually if not immediately destroyed. If it’s not, an individual warrant is needed to decrypt the metadata. We also know a program to capture email metadata — not content, per Greenwald’s report — was discontinued by the Obama administration in 2011.

But let’s pretend the minimization process doesn’t occur and the NSA grabbed the content of a few of your emails or Facebook chats, and this data included your name and IP address. Fact: this data would be considerably less intrusive than the data that’s being held, used and in some cases distributed by unaccountable corporations.

Here are eight privately owned entities who have far more information about you than the NSA.

1) Credit Card Companies

Not only do these corporations have records of everything you’ve purchased with your credit card, but they also have all your relevant data: address, phone number, work phone number, your Social Security number, your spouses’ information and anyone who might’ve co-signed for the card. Additionally, if you don’t pay your bills on time, these corporations can unilaterally besmirch your credit rating, making it more difficult for you to attain credit or to rent or buy a home. Ultimately, if you don’t pay your credit debt, they can mercilessly harass you and, if they’re not paid, they can sue you in court.

By the way, even if you opt out of allowing your credit card to share your personal information, it can anyway. For example, Chase’s privacy policy explains: “You may tell us not to share information about you with non-financial companies outside of our family of companies. Even if you do tell us not to share, we may do so as required or permitted by law… You may tell us not to share [information] about you within our family of companies… Even if you do tell us not to share, we may share other types of information within our family.”

Credit card companies and other lenders have Americans by the nards, more so than just about any other entity shy of the IRS (a few words about Internal Revenue below). And yet I would wager David Sirota, Glenn Greenwald and maybe even Edward Snowden have at least one card in their wallets.

2) Credit Rating Agencies

If you’ve ever purchased something on credit, you have a permanent listing in each of the big three credit ratings agencies, each of which are privately owned corporations. They have your Social Security number, all of your addresses if you’ve moved around, your credit card balances and, worst of all, any liens, foreclosures, repossessions or credit defaults you might’ve incurred — for any reason whatsoever (outside factors like recessions don’t matter to them). In most cases, you have to pay for the privilege of viewing your not-so-private data and tracking your credit score.

3) Your Bank

Even if you belong to a small credit union, your bank has access to your account balances, your spending habits, your personal information, your Social Security number — you name it. If you belong to a larger mega-bank, like Bank of America, it will often partner with other companies who, in turn, have access to your personal data. Also, Bank of America states quite clearly on its website:

The types of personal information we collect and share depend on the product or service you have with us. This information can include:
-Social Security number and employment information
-account balances, transaction history and credit information
-assets and investment experience

Unless you keep your money in your mattress, your information has been distributed all over the place. Where? Good luck finding out.

4) Your Internet Service Provider

In the broadest sense, your ISP, the corporation from which you purchase internet access, has everything on you. Everything you do online could be tracked in real time, including which websites you visit as well as the content of your emails (if you have an email account with them and if you don’t use encryption). If you download a song from Bit Torrent, your ISP could easily find out and send you a cease & decist notice.

For example, your ISP can also track which porn sites you visit — come to think of it, your favorite free porn site knows your IP address and, therefore, the neighborhood where you live. Purely as an experiment, of course, go to Pornhub.com or one of the other free sites and watch a video. Then observe in shocked horror what happens at the end. An ad will appear inside the video in which the name of your town will appear as if by magic. Porn magic. (I know this due to [cough, cough] thorough research for this article.) Seriously, the porn site has acquired your IP address, sent it to its ad-serving software (which possibly retains it) and has churned out an ad luring you into hooking up with a sexy topless woman who allegedly lives in your neighborhood. Privacy!

5) Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and the Other Tech Giants

The outrage-worthy PRISM system gets its data from somewhere, right? Clearly, this suggests the data exists inside the servers of these mega-corporations before it’s ever sorted by PRISM. In fact, these companies retain data the government doesn’t have access to — that is unless the government “friends” you on Facebook, which case it sees everything (incidentally, have you checked the occupations of all of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers?). For some reason, though, it’s less egregious for the tech giants to have your personal data than it is for the NSA to have it. Strange, I don’t see anyone deleting their Gmail or Facebook accounts because of these obvious violations of privacy.

6) Your Cellphone Provider

As we witnessed in Greenwald’s Verizon reporting and other similar stories that preceded it, the major cell providers obviously capture and retain all of your calling and texting data. But unlike the NSA, these mega-corporations have all of your personal subscription data, your financial data (perhaps even your credit rating information), and other information all the way down to perhaps your mother’s maiden name.

7) PayPal

This won’t help me gather more memberships for the Bob & Chez Show After Party podcast, but PayPal and some of the other online payment providers have your bank and/or credit card information, your on-and-offline spending habits, your ATM withdrawal records (including location) if you have a PayPal ATM card and, once again, your address, phone number and so forth.

8) Your Corporate Health Insurance Provider

You name it, they have it. Your medical information is arguably more private than any other data one could accumulate — the prescriptions you use, the ailments you’ve suffered no matter how embarrassing. Yet it’s in the hands of a private corporation and viewable by numerous qualified employees of that company. All of it. A private corporation has a record of every colon X-ray, every STD test, every ED prescription you’ve purchased (maybe with your totally-not-private credit card!). And, as I’ve been repeating, these companies also have your address, phone number, date of birth, Social Security number — and the same personal information pertaining to your entire family.

Speaking of which, if the United States ever passes the public option or, better yet, a British-style single-payer healthcare program, all of this information will be in the hands of the evil, evil privacy-invading United States government. Oh wait. A version of that is already in place. It’s called “Medicare,” and I thought we’re supposed to support Medicare, even though the government has records far more private than anything conceivably held by the NSA.

While I’m here, I thought I’d mention several other government and government-related agencies that have access to personal information more damning than the NSA.

The U.S. Postal Service handles all of your personal correspondence and, if a postal worker was up to no good, he or she could read your mail.

The Social Security Administration has your Social Security number (obviously), your date of birth, the amount of money you’ve paid into the system, how much you’ll be paid in benefits when you retire and, if you receive disability, your medical information.

Elsewhere, the sinister mustache-twirlers at the IRS have all of your annual financial data going back to your first job. Not only that, but it has the power to totally destroy you if you evade your taxes. If you make a mistake on your taxes, the IRS can audit your spending and demand to see a full accounting of your receipts, checking account statements and so forth. If you don’t pay your taxes, the IRS can attain “direct access” to your bank accounts and can seize all of your money. All of it. Ask Nicolas Cage, Wesley Snipes or even Glenn Greenwald what the IRS is capable of doing. It’s far worse than the NSA, I assure you.

Whenever I bring up these points on Twitter, the response invariably comes back: corporations can’t kill people or toss them into Gitmo, implying that the NSA can do these things to you. My reply is usually, “Hello, Mr. Jones. Can I call you Alex?” Two things here. First, the notion that the government will assassinate you is absurd. It’s Ron Paul, Alex Jones and Edward Snowden conspiracy theory paranoia. As far as jail goes, the IRS is considerably more likely than the NSA to toss you in prison. Secondly, it’s adorable how some people think corporations haven’t jailed or even killed people. Corporate pollution alone kills thousands of people every year. Meanwhile, corporations fine and arrest people all the time, whether it’s for theft of intellectual/real property, or for thousands of other infractions. As I noted above, the corporations you deal with every day can do many other things that could ruin your life. To quote The Godfather, “Who’s being naive, Kay?”

But perhaps it’s because Snowden is a free market Ron Paul supporter that makes him far more distrustful of government than corporations, and this attitude bleeds down to his most feverish acolytes. Greenwald, for his part, supports the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, allowing unfettered corporate contributions to political campaigns, not to mention the influx of money-laundering Super PACs, as well as non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)4 organizations. The same corporations that have access to your most personal information can enjoy almost unlimited financial influence over the democratic process, according to Greenwald. And the U.S. government is a demonic, Fourth Amendment devouring, authoritarian colossus that’s actively trying to steal our very souls? Incredible.

Bob Cesca is the managing editor for The Daily Banter, the editor of BobCesca.com, the host of the Bubble Genius Bob & Chez Show podcast and a Huffington Post contributor.

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  • seconnecticut

    Complacency will result in a state that would startle Orwell.

    In the wrods of Elaine Scarry:

    “Patriot Act inverts the constitutional requirement that people’s lives
    be private and the work of government officials be public; it instead
    crafts a set of conditions in which our inner lives become transparent
    and the workings of the government become opaque. Either one of these
    outcomes would imperil democracy; together they not only injure the
    country but also cut off the avenues of repair.”

    http://www.seconnecticut.com/bill_of_rights.htm

  • http://cousinavi.wordpress.com cousinavi

    Bob…you missed the worst one of all: your local, regular supermarket.

    They know if you have a dog or cat. They know if you have children and how old they are. They know when your wife menstruates. They know you don’t eat enough vegetables. They know you have a particular thing for Oreos. They know your family never comes to visit on the holidays. We haven’t even scratched the edge of the surface…
    As between what you BUY week in and week out, and what you SEARCH FOR on the intertubes…if I want to dig into you, I’ll take the Piggly Wiggly over Google any day.

  • http://twitter.com/TeekeeMon/ TeekeeMon

    Corporate Privacy Invaders indeed.
    16 corporate data trackers at Daily Banter….
    http://t.co/mEo263UeHD

    • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

      As there are data trackers on EVERY bloody large website in existence.

      But hey, waste your time trolling us………..

      • http://twitter.com/TeekeeMon/ TeekeeMon

        It wasn’t my assertion that corporate data mongers are worse than govt violations of reasonable search Amendments in the Bill of Rights.

        That was Bob.

        • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

          The point, Mr. TeekeeMon, is that you cannot avoid the data miners given the times in which we live. This is not the 18th century, it is the 21st century, and there is no real privacy anymore. Especially on the internet.

          Still……feel free to fight it all you like, but the truth is that even if the US government is forced to stop mining our data (which is not likely to happen–ever), our data will still be extensively mined. You can’t end data mining. I sincerely doubt that anyone can at this point.

          Privacy was lost to us when the internet went live.

          • http://twitter.com/TeekeeMon/ TeekeeMon

            No, Ms. FlippyFloppy,
            the point is this…

            When a corporation (Fox, Food Network) terminates employment (Glenn Beck, Paula Deen) and wingnuts scream “Free Speech, Free Speech!”… we understand that those wingnuts know nothing about the fact that the 1st Amendment applies to the govt… not the private sector.

            Similarly, 4th amendment protections against unreasonable search applies to the government (local, county, state, federal) digging into your business in the absence of any crime having been committed on your part. Same reason Governor Scott’s urinalysis testing for welfare recipients was struck down as unconstitutional. UNREASONABLE SEARCH. Not privacy.

            Do tell… why did YOU and Bob Cesca oppose the Patriot Act in March of 2011 and prior?? Do you even remember?

            Was there anyone back then saying, “But Ebay… but Amazon!”

  • Joyce M

    Chase Small Business is tweeting me. I registered at a small business website yesterday. I can expect more spam in the near and distant future.

  • dasboatless

    My bank actually had me verify an address from over 20 years and 4 states ago due to an incorrect password. It also had me verify the addresses of 2 of my brothers in FL and MD. I had no fucking clue how they tied all of that info together, especially as I haven’t had any credit in 17+ years and even a bank account for 5-6 years at one point….

  • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

    “Greenwald, for his part, supports the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision”

    No need to wonder why since he is owned by Cato/the Koch brothers.

  • Cobbesca

    Awesome they took down my comment. Can’t handle an adversarial discussion I see. Nice to know.

    • Victor_the_Crab

      Like all your posts here, it was tin foil wrapped shit.

  • Joyce M

    Detectives, prosecutors and killer sent Sharee Miller to prison with records of her internet activity. She has appealed and was granted a new trial. But, she still awaits her new trial in prison. What she thought was private is now public. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/35988098/ns/dateline_nbc-crime_reports/t/instant-message-murder/#.UdRgJPmsjeg The internet is not private.

  • Cobbesca

    “Eight Corporate Privacy Invaders That Know Way More About You Than the NSA.”

    This is what you start with? How do you know? You don’t actually but this is an important message to your readers, you don’t know, you don’t care and you prefer to pretend that government and corporations don’t or can’t have the same interests. You have no idea what the real program really entails, since we’ve been lied to under oath, in congressional hearings, by the guy tasked with directing the program (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/02/james-clapper-nsa_n_3536483.htmlObama). O’s administrations has yet to prove that he isn’t simply a tool of wall street, the MIC, pharma/hospitals/insurance and basically every corporation on your list of boogeymen. 

    If this had been a republican administration your outrage would be stratospheric but since it’s a dem, and a lovely dem he is, all you can do is deflect, obfuscate, and deny that they have anything to do with this increasinlyg disturbing surveillance trend. 

    He signed the Lilly Ledbetter act and appointed two left leaning women to the supreme court, dontcha know? On women’s issues aside from the pathetic politicization of plan B, O has been great. 

    And yet, no opinions on the super secret trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement? Yeah nothing to worry about there. It’s all in the open and transparent. Just ask Congressman Grayson but that would require some critical thinking and there is none when it comes to Cesca and his love of the O administration. 

    This sad sack article just goes to show that if you put a monkey in front of a keyboard for enough time he’ll come up with something so stupid on it’s face that the thought that a human being sat down and wrote these stupid words should be cause to question the ability of said author to assess anything that relates to O and his pandering, corporatist, look forward not backward/war crimes protecting administration. 

    Welcome to the idiocracy, where Cesca and his minions fight over who is the most evil half of our economy and surveillance state (which at this point includes GG, Snowden, republicans and these 8 corporate privacy invaders, according to Cesca et al.), all while ignoring the fact that they couldn’t do these things without the implicit guarantee and approval of the other half, the government. Immunity for telecoms (Obama voted yes), increased surveillance state under Bush and O (see Patriot Act signed by O), expanded secret wars around the world (see drone war escalations and JSOC), expanded assassinations to include extra judicial killings of american citizens with secret “trust us” evidence that the public is denied from seeing, zero accountability and investigations into financial malfeasance and criminality (Holder DOJ/Obama admin), HARP what a joke and a finacial disaster for everyone but the banks, appointing Wall Street tools to his cabinet over and over again (Geithner, Summers, Gensler, Sperling, Daly, Lew, etc….), the continued consolidation of our press and media outlets via Obama’s corporate tools at the FCC (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/johncassidy/2013/05/tom–wheeler-federal-communications-commission.html), touting the virtues of and aggressively promoting for the passage of the Grand Bargain, ignoring requests for greater transparency with regard to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and finally, grounding a foreign President (Bolivia) just because you can without any legal standing. That my friends is a corporate friendly administration willing to sell out at every turn. 

    Your premise is moronic Cesca. It’s not just the corporations we should be worried about it’s the corporations and the government working together that’s worrisome. This is why the NSA revelations are important and not just the fevered hallucinations of a 29 year old hacker or a narcissistic blogger. But it’s O’s lead and so you defer. You have plenty of patience when it comes to O, let’s just wait for the facts, but you speculate and fantasize about this top secret survellaince state without a shred of evidence to bolster your analysis, just: “I can’t verify that, of course, it’s only a theory.” 

    “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”
    Benito Mussolini

  • Mike Huben

    (1) Broadly, these 8 companies do not combine their data about you — yet.
    (2) The NSA can requisition this data from all of these companies with secret warrants, and probably does already.
    (3) The NSA can be used by corrupt administrations to spy on political opponents using this data.

    In general, we need strong privacy protections both from private companies and from government. We don’t have them.

  • Semanticleo

    Hey. Who won the Greenwald gay porn award?

    btw. Maduri, President of Bolivia kidnapped out of the sky by Austira at behest of US.

    http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSBRE9610C520130703

  • trgahan

    “free market Ron Paul supporter that makes him far more distrustful of government than corporations..”

    Note, along with Greenwald’s support of Citizens United, this can be seen simple white male privilege (aka American libertarianism). Corporations can do all of this because their boards are almost entirely white males who will never do ANYTHING against their own immediate self-interest. Government can’t because…well look at what is sitting in the White House!

    Bush was their “Man” in the White House when all these security measures were instituted. He was using these new powers to pretend to chase terrorists while focusing on left wing activities and dissenting citizens. Now with “the other” on the rise in Government, this crowd is freaking out as the same measure could be potentially turned on a class that thought itself exempt. The same crowd that told us “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about” are suddenly experts on the 4 Amendment and all of this is now a massive injustice.

    • Bubble Genius

      Well, in a way it’s sort of refreshing to know that the Teabaggers know more than 1.5 Amendments now – before it was just the 2nd and part of the 1st.

  • Bill_Andersoot

    A friend of mine founded a private company based in Boulder, CO that collects user data (much like the NSA does) from telcos and ISPs with the purpose of improving customer loyalty. The idea is that their clients can use your phone calling patterns, surfing habits, etc. to predict how happy you are with the company’s service. In the event their predictive software algorithm tells them you’re thinking about switching companies, surprise!–you get a call from your telco or ISP offering you a reduced rate or some sort of perk as a “thank you” for doing business with them. He told me: “People would be shocked by the amount of data we collect. M*crosoft wants all kinds of information that has nothing to do with their business–all sorts of personal stuff like driver’s license numbers, eye color, hair color, etc. We’re not sure what they’re doing with it, but it’s pretty creepy.”

    The NSA should be the least of your worries.

    • Victor_the_Crab

      And yet, people are more freaked out by what Obama might be doing with their information, but couldn’t give a rat’s shit about what your cell phone provider is doing with it.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    So that means your privacy laws suck?

  • Joyce M

    Detectives will search your cellphone before they search your home. They often use cellphone records to obtain warrants.

  • Joyce M

    When I activated a credit card, the lady I spoke to asked me questions that even my mother couldn’t answer. She quizzed me about addresses and people from more than 25 years ago. She even asked me about my relatives. All that information right in front of her and she was overseas.

  • MrDHalen

    One thing this whole story has shown me is that many progressive sites are infested with Libertarians. You see, they can’t build a national coalition on their own ideas, because they fall apart after a minute of examination by any half rational person. So they camp out at conservative and progressive websites hoping to inject their warped view of the world and then spark the fire to burn the whole system down so their Libertarian Oasis can rise from the ashes.

    There is no reasoning with these people. That is why simple questions regarding Snowden and GG cannot be answered. The goal is complete anarchy! They dream of days when their Khan like intellect can allow them to rise above the burned down regulations that government had placed in their way.

    These are not progressives we are having this conversation with. These are Libertarians to ashamed to reveal themselves and utopian dreamers who believe we can live in a worldwide cartoon with the Care Bears.

    • scvblwxq

      A labor party is needed.

    • blackdaug

      Infested is the word indeed. The laid down with Gg..and got up with fleas.

  • mrbrink

    XBOX 1 will come equipped with a mandatory Kinnect 2, a camera that:

    will be able to track up to 6 skeletons at once. It can also detect a player’s heart rate, facial expression, 25 individual joints (even thumbs) and the precise rotation of such joints, the weight put on each limb, and the speed of your movements, and track gestures performed with a standard controller. The Kinect microphone will remain active at all times so it is always ready to receive voice commands from the user when needed, even when the console is in sleep mode—where the Xbox One will be able to wake back up in response to a command. Unlike Kinect on the Xbox 360 (which is an optional accessory), the Xbox One console will not function unless the Kinect sensor is plugged in. However, users retain the software capability to turn off all Kinect functions while the sensor remains connected to the console.

    Microsoft’s business model is to keep you online, always plugged in, where they’ll be monitoring and storing, compiling a personal doofus-dossier on you– monitoring your searches and conversations(for quality control, of course, so they can bring you, the valued consumer, the best possible exciting new products and the latest trends and updates) and the user agreement states that they’ll hand it all over for the right advertising dollars, or the right court order– Whichever comes first.

    Millions of hipsters who are screaming about the government accessing this information with a terrorism-based warrant will eagerly accept Microsoft’s user agreement and they’ll continue to call for James Clapper to be destroyed and mounted on a pike because he’s exactly like oil corporations, banks, and Dick Cheney, but not nearly as elusive for some reason– just like they do in XBOX 1’s newest, yet-to-be-released title, “Storming The Fuck Out Of Your Mind.”

    That’s Rated E– For Everyone, motherfuckers.

  • JozefAL

    “Secondly, it’s adorable how some people think corporations haven’t jailed or even killed people.” Yeah. These are people who’ve obviously never heard the name, Karen Silkwood (despite the fact that there’s a film based on her life, and “mysterious death,” and its two primary stars–Meryl Streep and Cher–were both nominated for Oscars).

    They might also want to research the Ludlow Massacre. One of the union camp’s leaders, Louis Tikas, was taken prisoner by the Colorado National Guard (which had been sent in by the governor to lessen the hostilities caused by the mine owners’ strike breakers but Guard leaders sympathized with management) and his body was found days later, shot in the back.
    They might also want to do some research on Cripple Creek (as part of the larger Colorado labor wars of the early 20th century).

    • Bubble Genius

      And the Battle of Matewan.

    • condew

      Wasn’t Ford infamous for using Pinkertons to break stikes — and not gently?

      • dasboatless

        Madison, WV during the coal miner union wars….