In Yahoo Versus NSA, Hypocrisy Wins
Yahoo! Inc., as it turns out, has cared about privacy since 2007. It just couldn't tell anyone.
The company posted a note last week saying it was "pleased to announce" that it had gotten thousands of pages of court documents released that detail its battle to prevent the National Security Agency from collecting data about some of its users.
The NSA intended to use the data to gather intelligence on non-Americans outside the U.S. Yahoo refused, saying it objected to "overbroad surveillance." The courts repeatedly ruled in the NSA's favor. The government threatened to fine Yahoo the whopping sum of $250,000 a day -- or about 2 percent of its daily revenue -- if it didn't comply. And the company eventually relented.
"We had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. government's surveillance efforts," the company now says. "Our fight continues."
There's more than a little hypocrisy baked into those sentences. Technology companies tend to favor this kind of comically bold lexicon when they object to surveillance. Yet their business models depend on espionage of a much more intimate and far-reaching nature than what the NSA undertakes. And, unlike the NSA, they're actually interested in each and every user.
For Yahoo -- a company that once conducted extensive business with spyware companies, makes aggressive use of data mining and has caved far more cravenly to Chinese state security services in the past -- the insincerity is especially galling.
Like many free e-mail services, Yahoo collects a lot of data about its customers (name, age, phone number and so on) when they sign up. Less forthrightly, it also scans their e-mails, stores them, searches them for key terms and then charges advertisers -- sorry, "trusted partners" -- to target its users. Such arrangements accounted for about 75 percent of the company's revenue last year.
If you did all that, congratulations! You're a little weird, but you're an informed consumer. For all other normal humans, this amounts to a kind of legalized deception, and it's the coin of the realm in the digital economy. It's how Yahoo finds "insights into the daily digital habits of more than 800 million people worldwide." And it's how businesses can amass staggeringly comprehensive and personal profiles of people who have never used or even heard of their products. So when companies like Yahoo complain of "overbroad surveillance," they know whereof they speak.
There's a difference, of course, between a state conducting surveillance and a private company doing so. For one thing, the state has the power of arrest and detention. But there is a vast and intricate legal apparatus that limits precisely what information the NSA can collect and what can be done with it. Granted, it's imperfect. But it exists, and many public officials are trying to strengthen it.
The same can't be said for private companies. The scope of what they know about you is breathtaking, yet your recourse for correcting errors or opting out of their surveillance is almost nonexistent.
That should change. Companies such as Yahoo -- which have desperately fought privacy legislation around the world -- are the primary reason why it hasn't. In May, Yahoo even announced that it would no longer honor "Do Not Track" requests from browsers. Its users, Yahoo said, would now be blessed with a "highly personalized experience."
Those highly personalized experiences are the result of some of the most sophisticated and powerful espionage tools ever invented. There's a reason that intelligence agencies are so interested in technology companies: They're the best spies in the world.
--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.
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