The internet data miners pose a bigger threat than the NSA data buccaneers

In an interview with LA Weekly, documentary-maker Laura Poitras — who along with Glenn Greenwald introduced Edward Snowden to the world — contrasts the difference between NSA surveillance and data mining by the likes of Facebook and Google by saying:

I do think there’s cause to be concerned about what Google can do with the information it has on you. It’s frightening, but in a different way, because Google has less power than the government. The relationship with Google is consensual.

No one has to use Google, just as no one has to use the internet — at least that’s one argument that some observers want to push when painting Silicon Valley data-collection as a cause of less concern than government surveillance.

But there reaches a point where the use of a new technology becomes so ubiquitous that choosing not to use it is more difficult than using it. By default we all use electricity and have become dependent on its availability. And even among the tiny segment of the population who have chosen to live “off the grid,” most use alternative systems of electricity generation. Electricity, in the modern world, is something that most people believe they need.

After 25 years, the internet has rapidly moved in the direction of becoming a public utility — a service that most Americans not only find useful but increasingly view as a necessity. During the same period, the commercial use of the internet has come to be dominated by a handful of companies and their individual and collective power makes it debatable whether we should see ourselves as consensual technology users.

Technically, Google might not be a monopoly, but it has so much market dominance it has become synonymous with search. That means that for most people, choosing to use Google is no different from choosing to use the internet.

Even while it’s hard to argue that Google has more power than the U.S. government, the giants of the internet should really be viewed as a collective entity in that they are all focused on the same goal: maximizing the commercial value of the time people spend using the internet. In pursuit of that goal their unwavering intention is to maximize their ability to control the behavior of internet users.

While the NSA glances over everyone’s shoulder on the miniscule chance it might glimpse something interesting, Google, Facebook, and Twitter want to get inside your brain, change the way it operates, and impact the way you live.

If that impact in its minutiae — buying songs on iTunes, clicking “like” buttons on Facebook, or crafting tweets that don’t even merit retweeting — seems largely trivial and thus innocuous, we are failing to see the extent to which technology companies have become like textile mills weaving the fabric of our lives.

We choose the threads, but they make the design.

This is a totalitarian project designed to change whole societies, but since it is guided by commercial imperatives rather than state control, most Americans seem to regard this as fundamentally benign.

Adam Bain, Twitter’s President of Global Revenue, sees his company’s goal as being to “monetise emotions.” Twitter wants to be able to train its users to spend money without thinking by triggering purchasing choices “in the moment.”

The fears about what the NSA could do with your data that have been generated by the Snowden revelations, involve legitimate concerns about privacy and surveillance, but they have also had the effect of turning attention away from larger issues.

Among Americans, nothing is easier than capitalizing on fear of government, but the powers that exercise more influence over most people’s daily lives in this country are now based in Silicon Valley, not Washington DC.

Every shred of information they can gather about everyone, they are right now putting to use as they engage in the largest exercise in social engineering ever undertaken in human history.

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