Let's put a brake on the real snoopers

The outcry over the NSA/GCHQ Internet surveillance scandal can't hide the fact that huge corporations won't say what they know

Just how much control do individual Internet users have over the personal data collected by the big tech companies? The hand-wringing over government snooping has been warranted, but this is the question that should really concern us.

You see, while most people object to mass surveillance by the National Security Agency in the U.S. and the Government Communications Headquarters in the U.K. as a step toward some dystopian police state, we do at least get to vote for the governments that control that state. Yet when it comes to the big tech companies, we have no control at all.

Why do these huge unregulated corporations have access to so much information about us, and why do we have little or no oversight or control of the information they hold?

Just look at Facebook's clumsy and incomprehensible privacy tools for a sense of just how little attention is given to providing individuals with such control.

What is known?

Think about the things you don't know about the data the corporations hold about you:

* How much -- really -- of your personal data is held by big tech outfits such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google?

* What format is it collated in?

*Just how much visibility into your personal life is contained within this data?

* What kind of conclusions about you can be drawn from big data analytics based on that data?

* How anonymous is " anonymized"?

* Now that you have become the product, why are you unable to set your own price?

You can assume that your age, height, sex and nationality are known. And it's likely that in some cases your place of birth, elements of your ancestry and even the name of your first pet are known. Introduce the data held by retailers (Amazon, WalMart, Tesco, et al.), and even your shopping habits are known. Mobile providers know where you've been lately and where you are right now and may even be able to see where you are going.

So why can't users see this data? Why don't we have control?

All this information exists. That's the root of the anger felt at the unwarranted and uncontrolled surveillance habits of the big nations. We feel a sense of being violated, because we were never given a choice.

What makes it worse is that we have no idea just how much data the state holds, because we don't know how much information the big tech companies actually possess.

We can't check it for accuracy; we can't edit it for privacy. We have lost control of our personal information, ceding it in exchange for convenience to corporations that have proved themselves unable to keep that data safe. It's time to take the power back.

Broken trust

With this in mind, it's no surprise that the big tech companies are beginning to stand up to global government. Not only does the insecurity created by such surveillance threaten our sense of personal freedom, but it also undermines their future business plans, which demand that they control our data.

Some headlines help capture some of their anger:

* Google engineer accuses NSA and GCHQ of subverting 'judicial process'.

* NSA and GCHQ mass surveillance violates EU law, study finds.

* Tim Berners-Lee: encryption cracking by spy agencies 'appalling and foolish'.

* Microsoft tries to lure Gmail users by accusing Google of snooping emails for profit.

* Apple takes strong privacy stance in new report, publishes rare "warrant canary" .

* Apple Says It Isn't Interested in Your Data: Here's What Apple Does and Doesn't Know About You.

* GCHQ data snooping has "destroyed trust in British tech".

Apple, Google and others are actively lobbying governments to take steps to make this surveillance more transparent. That's understandable: Who in their right mind is going to use Google Docs if they know their valuable documents may be read by a rogue security official or well-equipped criminal gang?

Regaining faith

Tech firms need to win back customer trust.

Apple this week took a step toward this when it published its Report on Government Information Requests.

This document is interesting in lots of ways, particularly Apple's statement that: "Our business does not depend on collecting personal data. We have no interest in amassing personal information about our customers. We protect personal conversations by providing end-to-end encryption over iMessage and FaceTime. We do not store location data, Maps searches, or Siri requests in any identifiable form." This sounds reassuring, but we still lack any granular insight into how much personal data any company holds that is associated to an individual user account.

Apple may not hold too much, but companies such as Google, Facebook and the big online retail entities will hold much, much more. So why can't we see it? Take the power back There's a growing debate about a bill of digital rights for the online age. Internet users would be able to engage in a far more fulfilling debate if enabled to access, read and edit the personal data held by the big companies. For this we need transparency.

Apple tells us the U.S. government |does not allow it to say what content has been disclosed to national security agencies. But the tech companies don't need to tell us what they share with government. All they need do is give us total control over what data they hold about us in the first place.

Given that this data will be associated with a user's account ID, it seems logical that customers be provided with clear, comprehensible control over all the data associated with their own accounts. Customers should be able to choose what data they are willing to share with technology companies. Customers should have far more insight into these choices than the strange legal jargon surrounding current usage agreements.

This is not too much to ask, because it is now no longer paranoid to believe that data held by any technology company is an open book to any well-resourced group capable of hacking the system -- government or criminal.

Customers deserve the opportunity to access what data is held about them by these firms in order to edit, correct and delete it. We, not government or corporations, should enjoy total control.

Jonny Evans is an independent journalist/blogger who first got online in 1993. He's author of Computerworld's AppleHolic blog and also writes for others in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. Winner of an Azbee Award in 2010, Jonny enjoys new and disruptive technology and likes music almost as much as he likes his large and shiny dog.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

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