Government Snooping is Not the Same as Targeting Ads. And It is Much Worse.


Ayn Rand long understood something that more economistic, utilitarian, just-the-facts libertarian thinkers missed, to their detriment: that there is something weirder and darker underlying anti-liberty, anti-market sentiment than just a belief that the state makes life better. There is something in many people deeply and atavistically contemptuous and hateful about aspects of markets and commerce, and you can't evidence or reason people out of it.

A couple of cases in point in the public fooferaw over the recent return of NSA data harvesting to the news. (I wrote about it over three years ago in American Conservative.)

One, on the more serious end, is from Timothy Noah at MSNBC, making the (accurate) point that when government gets its hands on private information, it is often getting it from private businesses. (I made the same point in that American Conservative article.)

But the lesson is not that it is inherently bad that the private businesses gather it, or even use it to more intelligently target ad messages. Declan McCullagh wrote a fabulous Reason cover story of the pains and more interestingly of the pleasures of a world where that much information is easily gatherable about all of us in the more innocent age of 2004.

The real problem is indeed the problem we started with, that Noah fails to be successfully contrarian about: when government gets its hands on it and begins using it for purposes less benign toward we the people than better targeting ads (or selling it to others who want to use it for what tends to be ultimately that purpose: knowing you better to sell to you better.)

Noah, because government claims it is trying to protect us, seems far less worried about them having that information; government after all can only track us for the purpose of fining or arresting us, motives far purer than advertising and sales.

We know this attitude is bred deep in our culture because the same point–"why do we care if the NSA knows all these things about us, when Google already does?"–is the basis of this depressing Onion gag, "Area Man Outraged His Private Information Being Collected By Someone Other Than Advertisers."

It's depressing because with their generally infallible sense of where their audience is coming from and what they will think is funny and why, this particular cynical take of the Onion's will be all too readily picked up as a "what's all the fuss about?" fallback on the part of all the Obama fans and fellow travelers of the world who for whatever reason are angrier about someone trying to make a buck off of us (in a freely chosen transaction) than someone looking for reasons to arrest us (as long as they think there is a good reason and like the guy they think is in charge).

We indeed have less reason to be angry or worried about a company to whom we have given our information freely that might use it to target ads toward us (or sell it for that purpose) than we have to be angry or worried about a government, supposedly vowing to honor the Fourth Amendment in all its dealings, with the ability and desire to track us all all the time for the explicit purpose of restricting our abilities to communicate and act and with the power to arrest, fine, or kill us. (I was making this point back in 1999.) The worst part of living in a fishbowl is those actively trying to get hooks in us–and that isn't private business. Our relationship with them–unless government steps in–is one of choice, and freely chosen trade. Our relations with government are inherently coercive, and in recognition of its terrible powers it allegedly agreed with we the people in the Constitution to restrict its power to search us or or papers or effects unreasonably.

Yes, it is awful of those companies to give that information to this entity, the government, with that desire and power to surveill us in order to control us. But the government has ways of making them talk. And the government and its choices are still the cause of the bad part of that transaction.

I wrote of the weird obsession against commerce and its byproducts in our culture in 2007 in "Generation Dobler."

Ayn Rand's "money speech" from Atlas Shrugged, still a great analysis of contempt for commerce. (Contempt for ads is just a subset.)

NEXT: Police Sic Dog on the Wrong Guy, Hang Around for Laughs

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      This is what it boils down to.

      I have no time for people who cannot see the difference between Google tracking this information, and government prying it from them. They’re fucking idiots who simply cannot get their small minds around the fact that Google has no coercive powers. Google cannot put me in jail (perhaps indefinitely and without charge or access to counsel) They can’t drone me. Google can’t disappear me. And they can’t track me either if I choose to not use their fucking products.

      1. Can Google surrender your date to the state? If it can and does, do you understand that it can help to send you to jail?

        1. data, although if your date is Tony or shriek, perhaps you should go to jail.

        2. Be that as it may, Google still does not have the authority in itself to send you to jail.

      2. Years ago I had a short discussion with someone at a party who was outraged that some corporation was responsible for killing a dozen people in Nigeria (IIRC). Obviously governments needed to stop these deadly corporations, he thought, and it didn’t seem to occur to him that a dozen deaths over a period of years was a drop in the bucket compared to government-caused deaths.

        1. PapayaSF| 6.11.13 @ 9:26PM |#
          “Years ago I had a short discussion with someone at a party who was outraged that some corporation was responsible for killing a dozen people in Nigeria (IIRC).”

          I’d also want to know the particulars. Few governments turn over control of coercion to businesses.

          1. As I recall it was something about an oil company hiring security guards/mercenaries who killed some people, who were protestors or stealing oil or something. It was very likely not defendable, but it was striking because it was such an unusual event: corporations rarely shoot people.

            1. I knew this idiot socialist (necessary redundancy) years back in high school who insisted in full sincerity that I not patronize Coca Cola or Barnes & Noble because, “they operate death squads in third world countries”.

              1. LOL, bookstores are a tough business, but I don’t think they are that tough!

        2. Only a few? Wow! That’s so noble of the corporation.

          1. Guy Laguy| 6.11.13 @ 11:45PM |#
            “Only a few? Wow! That’s so noble of the corporation.”

            2 on a ten scale. Try again.

            1. who are you again?

      3. Yes, Google cannot put you in jail.
        But if Google collects your data, the government then gets some of your data collected by Google, and the government can put you in jail, drone you, or disappear you.

        Large corporations cannot keep your data safe from the government’s greedy claws. They will get NSLs and other secret requests to provide that data.
        The government also has vast capabilities for retaliating against corporations who do not comply.

        1. So because the fedgov can coerce Google in to giving my info, Google shouldn’t be able to run its business in a way that both best for it and me (as a customer/user of its services)?

          Better not invent that next great technology because someone might abuse that power!


  2. Who’s money speech? Get it straight, it was MY money speech….bitch!

    1. whose

      1. Fuck off great white pedant.

        I hate it when I fuck up.

        EDIT BUTTON!

    2. Get back in the book and take your meds.

      1. You see a difference between reality and the book?

        I suppose reality lacks heros.

        1. In general, no, but I don’t think you leapt out of the pages.

          I was trying to make a joke, it didn’t work.

  3. In my ideal world Rand Paul wins the presidency and replaces all White House portraits and busts of FDR with images of Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises.

    1. In my ideal world Rand Paul realizes his mistake and gets back out of the bed he is sharing with The GOP.

      1. So you want libertarianism to remain irrelevant and we need to sit around with our thumbs up our asses waiting for people to come to their senses?

        Pass. I’d like to actually see the world get better before I die. Even though it’s a long shot.

  4. I have doubts the equivalence is offered with any sincerity. Seems it’s straw-grasping among dedicated lefties by now.
    The illogic has been pointed out too many times.

  5. So I guess America’s love affair with Duck Patrol will soon be over

    1. With what now?

      *reads article*

      With what now?

      1. Duck Lovers. those Louisina guys with beards.

        1. Errr…the Duck Dynasty guys? Haven’t heard them called that before.

          But then I don’t watch ’em, either, and I sure as hell won’t be watching fucking juggalos…

          1. gay? not that it’s wrong

      2. They got Animal Rights terrorist psychofreakfuckwad and Shittiest Singer Ever Morrissey to throw a tantrum on some late night show, and walk off the set, which gave some local back-up band a shot at a national audience and spared everyone from having to listen to the whiny agitprop of a bonafide sociopathic vocalist whose voice indistinguishable from an audio recording of a crying baby.

        Never seen the show, know nothing about them, but they’re totally cool with me.

  6. Read on NPR comment boards:

    OK, deep breath, everyone. Relax. The government isn’t listening to your phone calls. You’re just not that interesting. Hate Obama? Ho-hum. Yawn. The NSA and other agencies are looking for people out to do real harm to the country and our fellow citizens, and I’m glad they are. If you want to get your knickers in a knot over surveillance, take it up with marketers, advertisers, banks, and other corporations who know more about you than the government, maybe even your own mother. You’re interesting to them because you can make them money.

    1. Despite the congressional push to reign in the programs, there are some who maintain they are important to keep the country safe and must be kept in place.

      Among the most outspoken has been South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham who told Fox News that he supported the mass collection of phone records collected by the NSA.

      “I’m glad the NSA is trying to find out what terrorists are up to, overseas and inside the country,” Graham said.


      1. Lindsey Graham? Whoa, if even he is OK with this, maybe I need to rethink my whole position.


        1. Graham is getting torn a new one over at Breitbart.com. I didn’t see anyone defending him.

          1. Everyone at FOX is calling Snowden a traitor.

            1. Hannity actually was defending him.

              Of course, this makes Hannity an unbelievable hypocrite since he was so gung ho about Bush era surveillance.

              1. Cavuto and Dobbs were bagging on him bad. Didn’t see Hannity, but you can bet your ass his opinion wasn’t based on anything approaching principle. More like “if it makes Team Blue look bad, I’m all for it.”

              2. “Hannity actually was defending him.
                Of course, this makes Hannity an unbelievable hypocrite since he was so gung ho about Bush era surveillance.”

                Really need a program here to keep track of the players.
                Loud-mouth gung-ho tuff-gais backing the government’s worthless program to save their sorry butts from some teen rag-head.
                Lefty columnists in the SF Chron bailing on Obozo and lining up with Hannity.
                Utilitarians are scrambling all over the place dodging that damn ball. VERY funny!

              3. Hannity siding with liberty over security, even if he frames it as “bad TEAM BLUE”, is fucking great. He’s all “Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz” these days. No more softball shit for the GOP establishment.He and Sensennbrenner were slagging Bush and lamenting there is no way to fix the Patriot Act. Mainstream TEAM RED is jettisoning the establishment and recognizing that having “the right guys in charge” isn’t going to cut it. Whatever game Snowden is playing it is paying off in spades.

              4. Hey now. I’m making a new rule for this situation:

                Biggins rule:

                When somebody is being a hypocrite, only give em shit about the wrong side. Carrot, stick, etcetera.

        2. It doesn’t change anyone’s minds but it’s a really fun stick to poke your lefty friends with.

          “So you and Lindsey Graham are on the same page about this, eh?”

          1. Don’t forget John McCain. If only we were as good of Democrats as those guys.

            1. That’s just being mean darius.

            2. Now I’ve got a headache again.

              2008 called and wanted its primaries back.
              Obama/Biden vs. McCain/Palin.

              Voters who did not want to vote for the lesser evils could select Nader or Barr. Ouch.

    2. “If you want to get your knickers in a knot over surveillance, take it up with marketers, advertisers, banks, and other corporations who know more about you than the government,…”

      If the latter uses that information it would likely be to attempt deprive me of my property, liberty or life. The former would use it to better sell me goods and services that I might want or need. What’s the group to be worried about?

      1. good call.

    3. I had no idea progressives could sound so hawkish when it comes to fighting the war on terror with the surveillance/police state. At this point, Bill Maher is reminding me of Dick Cheney.

    4. KKKorporashuns spy on you because they want you to be a consumer wage slave.

      Obama spies on you out of love.

  7. How did Snowden even get this job? Government surveillance is scary enough, but the CIA and its contractors hiring inexperienced, uneducated 20-somethings to run their programs and to be “senior” advisors, now that’s pretty scary too! Where’s the intelligence in that?

    It is beyond stupid to give private corporations free reign over the security or even defense of nations. Private business is not answerable to the public; and this is where it gets dangerous.

    We need to seriously think about returning these powers to public institutions, where public servants are accountable to their people, and regulations are easily monitored.

    1. We need to seriously think about returning these powers to public institutions, where public servants are accountable to their people, and regulations are easily monitored.

      Holy shit, someone came up with a more retarded excuse for this than even Shriek has managed.

    2. “We need to seriously think about returning these powers to public institutions, where public servants are accountable to their people, and regulations are easily monitored.”

      Now that’s FUNNY, GL!

      1. You know, like the IRS. Oh, wait….

        1. Or the BATFE!

          1. Or… the NSA?

  8. Money is a lot more honest a motive than most.

    1. Not just more honest, but safer: a company who wants to make money from me won’t want to tick me off, or put me in jail, or kill me.

  9. I think it’s cool that if my buddy Earl calls to make plans, I can ask the govt if he said 7 or 7:30

    1. Or you could just put it in your Google Calenda…oh wait, your point still stands.

    2. “I think it’s cool that if my buddy Earl calls to make plans, I can ask the govt if he said 7 or 7:30”

      And all of our ‘lost’ emails? Hey, just give me the addy of the twit who’s been assigned to watch my account!
      Hey, twit! I think it was around mid April of ’11; please check for a message from ‘sam@XYZ.com’. Thanks, sevo.

      1. They are public “servants”, right?

  10. taking a walk. eating a carrot #healthlifestyle

    1. Don’t do no ‘social media’; you coming out?

      1. being healthy is part of the gay lifestyle now?

  11. G U N S ! ! ! Stockpiles of them!!! That’s the difference!!

    Even the more slightly more sophisticated anti-libertarians who acknowledge the evil of unchecked government survelliance have a hard time understanding Facebook and Google don’t have goon squads to take you away if you don’t pay them. Bruce Schneier, who’s very eloquent and great on security matters, on EconTalk today said Exxon might have more power than the USG: http://www.econtalk.org/archiv…..n_pow.html

    1. Yeah, I wanted to point the Schneier interview out, but you beat me to it! It’s a great listen the week after Kling explained that people like him are just coming from a completely different place.

    2. ^Exactly. We’ve given our government a monopoly on the legitimate use of force-whether it be guns or incarceration-and for good reason. However, we must always be wary of the potential for government to abuse this power, and it is therefore imperative to keep government in check by making sure our rights are protected.

  12. For an interesting article on why Metadata collection by the gov is not benign check out: http://kieranhealy.org/blog/ar…..ul-revere/

    The author uses public data from 1775 Boston to show how even a small data set can be very dangerous in the hands of a government.

    1. I am sure that the government collected more than merely metadata. All these large data centers the NSA is running …

  13. Welcome to the New Regime!


  14. “Let me explain to you how this works: you see, the corporations finance Team America, and then Team America goes out… and the corporations sit there in their… in their corporation buildings, and… and, and see, they’re all corporation-y… and they make money.”

  15. There are all sorts of differences.
    For one thing the phone metadata collected by the government is a completely different and more intrusive type of information than the record of your web searches. Second. the record of your web searches is tagged anonymously, it’s not directly linked to your phone number, name, or address (unless you provide that information on a form). Further, they pretty much don’t care you you are. You’re a number in a database attached to a bunch of keywords.

    Second, it’s compartmentalized. Different companies have different info. It’s not all gathered in one place.

    Third, as reason has already outlined, they pretty much don’t care what I’m doing if it doesn’t offer a possibility of selling me something.

  16. On a side note, I’m going to mention again my Jonathan Haidt inspired theory that money and commerce are assocated with the “sanctity/degradation” axis of many people’s moral reasoning. Money and commerce are impure and considered degrading by a lot of people. Look at how all sort of liberals find something crass and unsettling about living in a society where relationships are “reduced” to market transactions. (Just think about the implications of the word “reduced” for starters).

    IMO, that might be because disease vectors once spread along trade routes (for instance the bubonic plague), and money is an object that changes hands often, so it would likely be carrying disease. (When you were a kid, ever remember your parents admonishing you not to put the penny in your mouth?) Also, any sort of contact with other tribes, transport of goods, etc. would carry a risk of spreading a disease. All that is linked directly in with the human disgust mechanism, which is one of the main brain regions that govern reasoning about morality. Connect something up with disgust and it’s nearly impossible to change people’s minds about it. The revulsion overcomes rational thought.

    So, what we’re dealing with, IMO, is a sub-rational disgust based reaction to commerce that’s evolved into a social norm in some places. You can’t reason people out of it, you have to get them to supress their disgust reaction first. Maybe Haidt has some ideas on how to do that.

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