When I first tell people I’m a libertarian their reaction is often to accuse me of being a corporate shill. Many people believe there is some separate between corporations and governments. Depending on what side of the political spectrum they fall on corporations are entirely good and governments are entirely evil or vice versa. In reality corporations and governments depend on one another, which is why governments created the idea of limited legal liability, what we call incorporation, in the first place.
Today corporations and governments work hand in hand. I like to refer to this relationship as a private-public partnership. They’re extremely common and almost always bad for you and me. Case in point, the private-public partnership that has greatly expanded the surveillance state:
The National Security Agency’s ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.
While it has been long known that U.S. telecommunications companies worked closely with the spy agency, newly disclosed NSA documents show that the relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative,” while another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.”
AT&T’s cooperation has involved a broad range of classified activities, according to the documents, which date from 2003 to 2013. AT&T has given the NSA access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to trillions of e-mails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters.
Establishing a massive surveillance state from scratch is expensive so the National Security Agency (NSA) tries to partner with companies that already have access to data. Back in 2006 we learned that AT&T was operating an interception facility for the NSA so it shouldn’t surprise anybody to see that partnership has expanded. The NSA doesn’t want to foot the expense of intercepting traffic and AT&T is more than happy to sell data that crosses its lines to the NSA.
A big issue here is that the government, with its monopoly on justice, can create separate rules for itself and private entities. This is a legal reality few people spend enough time considering. While the state may pass a law that prevents it from collecting data on domestic individuals to make the commoners feel good it won’t write a rule preventing private entities from doing the same. Through these separate rule systems the state can still access data through private corporations and be honest when claiming it isn’t collecting the data. And since the state pays well these corporations are more than happy to collect and sell the data.