Misunderstanding Risk (A Lunchtime Musing)

userpic=securityAmericans do not understand risk (actually, most humans don’t understand risk).

Want a good example of this? Look at the recent NSA data collection scandal. People are in an uproar about it. Investigations have started. Lawmakers are claiming they had no idea this is what they approved. Google is saying “don’t worry” and wanting to disclose what they really shared. Polls are, well, polling in various ways. People are pushing 1984 up the best seller lists. Everyone is debating whether the discloser is a traitor or a hero. In short, the Internet has its panties in a wad about this.

Now, I’m not trying to say this data collection — especially in secret — is a good thing. It isn’t. It is likely either unconstitutional or borderline, and should be investigated fully (although we can’t really blame only on the current administration, as the collection started in the previous administration… and as such, both are to blame). But is it risky? Are government agents going to come to your house and bang down your door as a result of this? Very unlikely. The amount of data collected — and the type of data collected — makes the possibility that government will be proactively searching and targeting you extremely remote. Just given the amount of data and its unstructured nature, Occam’s Razor says it will more likely be used for additional investigation after some other intelligence source uncovers a target of interest. In other words: this data will (most likely) only be used after you are already on the radar for some other reason. For 99.9% of the people in America, that means the personal worry is hypothetical. [Again: this doesn’t make the program right; it only means you don’t need to be as paranoid. That is, of course, unless they really are after you.]

However, there is a data collection program that is a worry — but people don’t think about it. This opinion piece highlights it. We are giving giant corporations loads of personal data every day. Facebook scans and records your every like, status update, and picture… and sells that data to advertisers. Google scans your email, your Google documents, your searches, and sells that data to advertisers and uses it to market to you. Amazon knows your books, your wants, your desires (and soon, what you eat). Credit card companies know your purchasing patterns and use it to market you. Supermarkets know your purchases, tied to you every time you save a penny using an affinity card. What’s worse is that we willingly give our data to these corporations. We ignore the privacy policies they send. We send unencrypted email. We send unencrypted texts and tweets. We post indiscriminately. We give our information away to save 5c.

Yet when do we get outraged? When the “government” gets only part of that data. When the government that gets the data hasn’t even demonstrated that it has the capability to use the data. Why is the implicit assumption that government is bad, and that corporations are good? Why do we ignore all the corporate data mining that goes on? We’re sheep, people, sheep, for the corporations that are the real puppetmasters of the world. You doubt me? Who makes major donations to politicians to get them to do what is in the corporation’s interests?

As you get your dander up about the government data collection, put it in perspective. The real risk isn’t the government collecting the data. The real risk is that these corporations are collecting the data in the first place. While the government has laws — and the constitution — that will eventually limit its reach… corporations have no such restrictions. Yes, Big Brothers are watching you… but is the brother we must really worry about the Government… or that brother from another mother?


3 Replies to “Misunderstanding Risk (A Lunchtime Musing)”

  1. Well, I think you’re over-generalizing a bit. Someone can be mad about the government’s surveillance programs AND the data collection practices of corporations AND eroding standards of privacy in general. Incidentally, I’m also concerned about RFID tags, which you don’t even mention here.

    I think what you’re seeing here is not that paranoia is anything new, but simply that the NSA revelations have made paranoia fashionable again.

    And remember, just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

  2. Well, I don’t know anybody making that pair of arguments–just the opposite, I know a lot of people (my co-workers, for example) who are fine with the government doing it because terrorism is such a fear of theirs.

    I dislike both forms of data collection, but corporations will not decide that I violated some law and put me in jail without due process (because I consider the NSA data collection a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and I think the United States Supreme Court got it wrong here).

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