Rethinking Government Access to Consumer Data

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Private tech companies’ intelligence capabilities are eclipsing those of the US Intelligence Community, and Uncle Sam wants in on the action. And while intelligence agencies’ recent bid to buy privately-produced consumer data has stirred up some predictable controversy, the questions that Americans should be asking are much more fundamental than those currently on the table.  In a world in which Facebook knows more than the CIA about almost everyone—and can sell that unclassified knowledge to anyone—what do privacy, accountability, and oversight look like? If other governments can legally buy the data, what does national security look like?

The answers are not so clear, in part because the American public still has not fully internalized just how much privacy they’ve lost, nor reckoned with what a world of pervasive data collection means for national security. Long-term solutions will require a paradigm shift in how Americans understand privacy and power. To get there, some short-term measures are in order.

Tech’s accidental eclipse of government intelligence owes much to the fact that in the age of big data and AI analysis, “advertising” and “intelligence” have become unnervingly similar. In both industries, massive databases aggregate, analyze, and manage detailed profiles of countless individuals with an aim to influence actions, motivations, and behaviors. The tools and information used to understand persons of interest have organically developed in parallel, and are now highly transferrable.

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