Americans and some elected officials are up in arms over revelations that the NSA is collecting and storing vast quantities of their personal data. But why aren’t people upset that private companies trade the same information between themselves?

This is done through companies like Acxiom, which buys and sells private user information from companies such as Facebook, writes Cathy O’Neil at the blog mathbabe. That information is “much more specific and potentially damning … than the metadata [call logs showing senders, receivers and length of calls, etc.] that the government purports to have.”

That much of the American public seems to be OK with private companies sharing such information but terrified of the government doing the same demonstrates the common preference and implicit trust many Americans have for the private sector as opposed to any aspect of the government.

O’Neil offers a few possible explanations for the lack of outrage over the abuses made possible by private data collection, beginning with the assumption that little harm is likely to come to people who conform to some vague ideal of a good citizen. Other possibilities include the mistaken belief that companies are interested only in money; the fear of losing constitutional rights as opposed to losing things they don’t possess (such as a job, a house or a good credit score); the assumption that government will protect them from predatory businesses; or perhaps — and this is the most hopeful option — people just haven’t thought about it.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.


Theory 1: people think about worst case scenarios, not probabilities

When the government is spying on you, worst case you get thrown into jail or Guantanamo Bay for no good reason, left to rot. That’s horrific but not, for the average person, very likely (although, of course, a world where that does become likely is exactly what we want to prevent by having some concept of privacy).

When private companies are spying on you, they don’t have the power to put you in jail. They do increasingly have the power, however, to deny you a job, a student loan, a mortgage, and life insurance. And, depending on who you are, those things are actually pretty likely.

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