Editorial: The World’s Best Spies

Friday, September 19, 2014
Yahoo Inc., as it turns out, has cared about privacy since 2007. It just couldn’t tell anyone.

The company posted a note last week saying it was “pleased to announce” that it had gotten thousands of pages of court documents released that detail its battle to prevent the National Security Agency from collecting data about some of its users.

The NSA intended to use the data to gather intelligence on non-Americans outside the United States. Yahoo refused, saying it objected to “overbroad surveillance.” The courts repeatedly ruled in the NSA’s favor. The government threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 a day — or about 2 percent of its daily revenue — if it didn’t comply. And the company eventually relented.

“We had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. government’s surveillance efforts,” the company now says. “Our fight continues.”

There’s more than a little hypocrisy baked into those sentences. Technology companies tend to favor this kind of comically bold lexicon when they object to surveillance. Yet their business models depend on espionage of a much more intimate and far-reaching nature than what the NSA undertakes. And, unlike the NSA, they’re actually interested in each and every user.

For Yahoo — a company that once conducted extensive business with spyware companies, makes aggressive use of data mining and has caved far more cravenly to Chinese state security services in the past — the insincerity is especially galling.

Like many free email services, Yahoo collects a lot of data about its customers (name, age, phone number and so on) when they sign up. Less forthrightly, it also scans their emails, stores them, searches them for key terms and then charges advertisers — sorry, “trusted partners” — to target its users. Such arrangements accounted for about 75 percent of the company’s revenue last year.

Now it’s true that users consent to this when they sign up for Yahoo’s services. Surely, before they hit “Create Account,” they notice that line in nine-point font saying, “I agree to the Yahoo Terms and Privacy.” Then they surely click through and read all 5,701 words of Yahoo’s terms of service. Then they peruse its 1,318-word privacy policy. Then they weigh their privacy concerns against the sublime joys and convenience of seeing a lot of advertising and make an educated decision to submit to the trusted partners.

If you did all that, congratulations! You’re an informed consumer. Most, however, submit to a kind of legalized deception. That’s how Yahoo finds “insights into the daily digital habits of more than 800 million people worldwide.” And it’s how businesses can amass staggeringly comprehensive and personal profiles of people who have never used or even heard of their products. So when companies like Yahoo complain of “overbroad surveillance,” they know whereof they speak.

There’s a difference, of course, between a state conducting surveillance and a private company doing so. For one thing, the state has the power of arrest and detention. But there is a vast and intricate legal apparatus that limits precisely what information the NSA can collect and what can be done with it. Granted, it’s imperfect. But it exists, and many public officials are trying to strengthen it.

The same can’t be said for private companies. The scope of what they know about you is breathtaking, yet your recourse for correcting errors or opting out of their surveillance is almost nonexistent.

That should change. Companies such as Yahoo — which have desperately fought privacy legislation — are the primary reason why it hasn’t. There’s a reason that intelligence agencies are so interested in technology companies: They’re the best spies in the world.

Bloomberg News

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