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Editorial: Data, data, data

On June 1, key sections of the U.S. Patriot Act expired. Namely, the bulk telephone records collection known as section 215, that allows the government to collect phone records on, well, everyone; the “lone wolf” provision which enabled the government to spy on a foreigner without proving association with a specific terrorist group; and the “roving wiretap” provision that allows the government to issue a wiretap on a person and all their means of communication, rather than on a specific device.

This was not, however, a victory for those concerned about government overreaching into private data collection.

Two days later, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act (aren’t we just the best at naming things?). This act basically restored all of the powers of the Patriot Act, with the exception of the bulk telephony data collection. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the data is not still being collected; it just means that now the NSA has to ask for the information rather than collecting it directly.

As citizens, we seem a bit confused as to what we want our government to be able to do with our data.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month, a slight majority (54 percent) disapprove of the government collecting telephone and internet data. A much wider majority, 74 percent, do not think we should sacrifice our civil liberties for safety. That being said, 49 percent believe that stopping terrorism is more important than protecting civil liberties.

Pew chooses to call this a “nuanced” view on data collection. We tend to believe it is a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) kind of view. Americans seem to think it is perfectly fine to collect their neighbors’ data, but keep your hands off my iPhone, Mr. Government.

The reality, of course, is that the government’s data collection is really just the tip of the iceberg. Much of the information from the preceding three paragraphs was gleaned following internet research. Some of that research was found on newspaper websites that had an interesting feature to them, bulk data collection.

Certainly you have seen this feature on a newspaper website, including on our hometown stltoday.com. You click on a headline and begin reading a story. A sentence or two in, you are asked to complete a survey question in order to continue reading the article. Some of you readily answer the question, others are turned off and click away from the story. But do you know who and what is behind this data collection?

For most websites, those survey questions come from the mother of all data collection agencies, Google. The feature is called the Google Consumer Survey and it works something like this: A brand pays a fee to Google to have seemingly random questions posed to a targeted audience.

Google partners with publishers to post these survey questions and splits the fee with the publisher. The current going rate is about 10 cents per response, so every time you answer that question Google and the publishing partner each get a nickel and the brand gets your answer. Your data, your opinion, your knowledge, your habits, have just been collected and sold to an unidentified third party. And all you wanted to do was read a story that you thought you were getting for free.

The reality is that your activities are far from free. Data, you see, is the new world currency. It is bought and sold in real time, everywhere and by everyone. It is the source of great opportunity and great consternation (especially if you are a baseball team, as it turns out). We are in uncharted waters when it comes to which parts of our lives should be accessible to the government in order to thwart terrorism or accessible to brands in order to peddle trinkets.

This much is sure, the act of collecting our telephone and internet records in bulk is not the traditional act of a “patriot,” and making those records available only upon asking private companies for them does not increase our “freedom.”

Sooner rather than later, this remarkably important debate needs to be elevated above the political rancor of elected officials, and needs to become a core issue decided at the constitutional level. Our society today stands at a crossroads of liberty, and that crossroads passes directly through all of our backyards.

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