The revelations regarding the National Security Agency (NSA) and the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) just keep on coming. After yesterday’s disclosure that they sucked up private information from millions of mobile phone users via popular applications including Angry Birds’, yet more damning information has arrived in the public domain today.
Further leaks from Edward Snowden have indicated that YouTube video views, Facebook ‘likes’ and Blogger visits are among activities that GCHQ has monitored in real-time. This comes as part of a rather oddly named program apparently referred to as ‘Squeaky Dolphin’. NBC News has broken this story in the past 24 hours, with the broadcaster having seen full details of the program, which has been provided by the now exiled Snowden.
Collaboration between NSA & GCHQ
The abilities of the UK intelligence agency in this regard was also shared with the NSA back in 2012. It would appear that this is something which Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) has become aware of at least to some degree, as the popular social media site encrypted its data shortly after the date when the two intelligence agencies begun to share data on the matter. However, YouTube, which is owned by Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG), and services related to Blogger both remain unencrypted.
The Snowden revelations continue to cast a shadow over government agencies and the real reason for their existence, but also pose questions for the tech sector in general. An operation such as Facebook has long been criticized by privacy advocates for potentially revealing too much data about the people that sign up for it, but the sort of revelations that are now coming out on a seemingly daily basis will put an even greater onus on both social media sites and tech manufacturers to do more to guarantee the privacy of their customers.
It is only days ago that a Princeton University study concluded that Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) could lose 80 percent of its users over the next few years. Although the company predictably responded very robustly to this assertion, and the media has generally done their bit and waded in with almost blanket support for Facebook (for some reason…) the fact remains that the social media site is hemorrhaging customers owing to growing competition. The fact that this sort of privacy threat seemingly exists as well from using the social network site won’t exactly endear it to the general public.
Google Street View controversy
The owner of YouTube, Google, isn’t exactly a stranger to controversy regarding the inappropriate acquisition of data. To cover all of their foibles would take quite some time, but the most obvious criticism which Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) has had to face in this area would be with regard to their Street View application. There have been all manner of privacy concerns with regard to this application, and furthermore it is quite clear that Google perhaps acquired quite a bit of data from the Street View building process that it shouldn’t have got its grubby mitts on. While it claimed that this would be deleted, it then admitted in July, 2012 that it had failed to do this (personally, I’ve always found deleting things to be rather easy, and even my mother can delete stuff from her computer…).
This combination of huge corporations that, to put the most positive spin on it possible, can’t entirely be trusted to keep our identity and data as secure as we might want, and a vast government architecture that can reasonably be described as a Stasi-esque operation, should be considered a pretty worrying combination by the general public. To what degree people are paying attention is debatable, but these latest revelations ought to be of particular concern.
Facebook activities, YouTube favorites
The reason for this is that YouTube, Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) and blogging reveal fundamental elements of a person’s interests, views and political persuasion. You could really learn a great deal about a person from checking out their YouTube likes and favorites, Facebook activity and blog posts. The only legitimate reason to do so would be to personally profile individuals. What other value could Facebook ‘likes’ data possibly have to the government?
What many people will want to know is to what extent have the NSA and GCHQ been ‘piggybacking’ onto software without the knowledge of the companies involved. This wouldn’t exactly be an edifying prospect, of course, but it would probably be better than the other possibility – which is that the companies involved did know, and either did nothing or possibly even co-operated.
YouTube and Facebook remain massive websites. Facebook does have serious problems with growth and sustenance of its brand going forward, but the fact is that it remains in the top 40 brands in the world according to Forbes. They are not going anywhere in the foreseeable future, and the trillions of hits that they attract per year are about as likely to dry up as the Atlantic Ocean.
But people will inevitably begin to question their involvement with such websites if they know that they are being systematically profiled for nefarious reasons while they use them. Enough of this already goes on with advertising; tolerating it from intelligence agencies is beyond the pale.