Silicon Valley has a problem. The furor over the Obama administration’s use of technology to track possible terrorists has cast a spotlight on the private information Valley companies collect.
The question is: Is government’s disclosure of its use of data for national security more important than companies’ disclosure of how they’re using even more intensely personal information for profit?
Tech giants including Google and Facebook spent last week urging the federal government to let them reveal more about the National Security Agency’s gathering data on Internet users. But the tech industry just succeeded in killing a bill in the California Legislature that would have given consumers the right to know how their personal information is being used by companies themselves.
Companies can’t have it both ways. And really, shouldn’t the threshold for disclosure be lower for commercial use of personal data than it is for national security purposes?
Companies sell information, including users’ religious, political and sexual interests, without telling them how it will be used. Consumers have no way to evaluate whether it’s wise to continue online posting or shopping habits that lay bare their personal beliefs or preferences. Yet this kind of disclosure could be more harmful to most Americans than the NSA’s mining of metadata to troll for terrorist threats.
Tech geeks generally have argued that their work is above the political fray. They say they produce innovative products that make us smarter and more efficient and make the world a better place. And, by the way, drive the nation’s economy. Google’s informal motto, “Don’t be evil,” has been the mantra of software programmers and developers across the industry from the start.
But the success of social media and online commerce is reliant on consumer trust. And the more speculation spreads about information being shared, whether buying habits or metadata, the more likely users are to reconsider online activity.
The way to avoid that is to make transparency the norm. If companies want the NSA to be more open about its use of data — a premise whose wisdom still is under debate — they should set the example.
A University of Southern California poll last year indicated 82 percent of Californians are concerned about how the information collected online is used. The Internet privacy bill authored by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would have mirrored disclosure protections already in place in 27 European nations — but it couldn’t make it out of the Assembly Judiciary Committee chaired by Fremont Democrat Bob Wieckowski.
Silicon Valley companies may fade from the NSA debate, which now rages in multiple directions. But Americans’ legitimate privacy concerns will not disappear. Bringing sunshine to the information collected online is the best way for companies to maintain consumers’ trust. They shouldn’t need a law to do it.