How Private Corporations and the State Team Up to Spy on You

Most people who travel in libertarian circles are quick to point out the dangers of government spying. Many of those same people are unconcerned with spying performed by private entities. After all private entities are good, right? If we lived in a black and white world where public and private entities were clearly divided that would be true but we live in a world where private corporations are married to the state in such a way that it’s almost impossible to tell the two apart. Do libertarians who oppose state spying but condone spying done by private corporations oppose or support private corporations that spy on users and sell that data to the state? It’s an important question to ask because we live in a world where that happens with increasing frequency:

It’s no secret that we’re monitored continuously on the Internet. Some of the company names you know, such as Google and Facebook. Others hide in the background as you move about the Internet. There are browser plugins that show you who is tracking you. One Atlantic editor found 105 companies tracking him during one 36-hour period. Add data from your cell phone (who you talk to, your location), your credit cards (what you buy, from whom you buy it), and the dozens of other times you interact with a computer daily, we live in a surveillance state beyond the dreams of Orwell.

It’s all corporate data, compiled and correlated, bought and sold. And increasingly, the government is doing the buying. Some of this is collected using National Security Letters (NSLs). These give the government the ability to demand an enormous amount of personal data about people for very speculative reasons, with neither probable cause nor judicial oversight. Data on these secretive orders is obviously scant, but we know that the FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of them in the past decade — for reasons that go far beyond terrorism.

NSLs aren’t the only way the government can get at corporate data. Sometimes they simply purchase it, just as any other company might. Sometimes they can get it for free, from corporations that want to stay on the government’s good side.

Scenarios such as this moved me away from my original libertarian roots that believed private entities had a right to do as they please so long as they didn’t harm anybody to viewing many of those private entities are mere extensions of the state. These scenarios also jump-started with interest in crypto-anarchy, specifically the need for anonymity and strong encryption of communications. In our world we must assume that everybody is spying on you and take appropriate measures.