The spies among us: when will The Guardian and its editor, Alan Rusbridger, connect Facebook’s spying to the Snowden leaks — on the paper’s front page?

Secret, shadowy tunnels into our lives

Secret, shadowy tunnels into our lives
– photograph by postgutenberg [at]

Long live the special relationship! Week after week, in its continuing co-leakage with Edward Snowden of documents about government spying, The Guardian, a British newspaper, is dishing up an unparalleled feast of examples to illustrate the use of ‘disconnect’ as a noun — as in, ‘their problem is a reality disconnect’ — classified by the Oxford English Dictionary as American English.

When will this newspaper and its otherwise admirable editor, Alan Rusbridger, acknowledge, in the same front page stories — such as last weekend’s about Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA storing intimate images from Yahoo webcams —

 … that the governments are only copying or helping themselves to vast stores of private data about us that companies have been amassing – for profit? 

… that any organisation collecting vast stores of such information about us – whether commercial or governmental – is at the heart of the problem?

Like some tragic accident victim whose brain hemispheres can no longer communicate, The Guardian cannot bring itself to integrate into its Snowden coverage these statements — published on the newspaper’s own site, on 24 February — by Ian Brown, associate director of Oxford University’s Cyber Security Centre:

Facebook has built its $173bn market valuation around profiling its users and showing them targeted adverts. It has refused to allow users to subscribe with money rather than personal data. […]

The business models of internet giants such as Facebook and Google are crucial to the future of privacy.

What is the proper order of blame for smashing the last vestiges of our privacy? This was beautifully set out in the first paragraph of a column last week by Joe Nocera in The New York Times, an occasional partner of The Guardian’s in publishing jets from the Snowden fount of horror. If pressed for time, dear reader, just read its last sentence:

We are fast approaching a privacy crisis in the United States. Google, Facebook and other big Internet companies collect information about us, which they deploy in the service of advertisers. Big data brokers, like Acxiom, have developed sophisticated tools that allow them to know almost as much about us as we know about ourselves; they then sell that data to all kinds of companies that want to learn everything from our habits to our health, from our sexual orientation to our finances. The digital age has made it easy to collect medical data, which is supposed to be protected under federal law. Huge data breaches at big retailers like Target have made it seem unsafe to use credit cards. And I haven’t even mentioned the Edward Snowden revelations about the massive data collection by the National Security Agency.

Next, we recommend reading an excellent interview in Salon with Julia Angwin, who has just published a book about the privacy crisis that draws on her years of scoop-laden reporting on this subject for The Wall Street Journal:

Both Silicon Valley and the government had a problem and they both came to the similar conclusion that the answer was collecting vast amounts of personal data. From the commercial side it turned out that the way to get advertisers interested in the Internet was to offer them incredible insights on the people that they were advertising against. And on the government side it was: If we collect a lot of information we can find these terrorists.

Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is these two things converge. […] Commercial data has become a honeypot that government likes to dip its hand into.

Are attitudes changing about privacy?

I think that the Snowden revelations have made it clear how intertwined government and commercial surveillance are. Before, maybe it wasn’t as obvious to people that the information that Google had accumulated was also being accessed by the government.

… Finally, those of us like one friend of post-Gutenberg’s playing dim in refusing to acknowledge the risk that stores of information, once collected, can change hands – should consider what one commenter noted, with perfect accuracy, beneath the Ian Brown contribution to The Guardian:


24 February 2014 9:37am

It is a known fact that [Facebook and other companies] harvest whatever data they can about the user, and do so for their own corporate gain.

It is also now an established fact that security agencies can get hold of that data, and use it for whatever they believe to be in the interests of national security.

Remember, information can always acquire powerful new manipulators. Only last week, in Britain, the National Health Service was lambasted beneath headlines like this one: ‘Hospital records of all NHS patients sold to insurers’.

… As we have asked before, might The Guardian’s dogged refusal to connect commercial spying to security agency surveillance have anything to do with that newspaper’s invasive monitoring of its own readers – with the same surveillance software tools?