Throughout 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.
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.
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.