When a Government Spies on its Citizens: Corporations Hand Over Consumers’ Private Data

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Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo! have all revealed that the United States Government has requested the personal user data for thousands of users.

Today, Apple also disclosed details about how much private data they have given to the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of various governments around the world.

In the spirit of transparency and disclosure, Communist China and Communist Russia allow companies to provide details about the number of requests made.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Government prohibits any disclosure of specific details regarding how many thousands of requests it has made. This helps keep the citizenry in the dark.

According to a recent report, “only one country disallows companies from revealing the exact number of requests. Yes, you guessed right: the good ol’ U.S. of A.” (source)

“At the time of this report,” Apple notes, “the U.S. government does not allow Apple to disclose, except in broad ranges, the number of national security orders, the number of accounts affected by the orders, or whether content, such as emails, was disclosed. We strongly oppose this gag order, and Apple has made the case for relief from these restrictions in meetings and discussions with the White House, the U.S. Attorney General, congressional leaders, and the courts.”

The report goes on to disclose the following statement from Apple about the privacy practices of companies like Facebook and Google:

Perhaps most important, 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. … Unlike many other companies dealing with requests for customer data from government agencies, Apple’s main business is not about collecting information.

The chart below provides detailed information about the number and nature of requests for data. As you’ll see, the United States makes 10 times more requests than other countries. Click the chart for a larger view.

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Impact on Democracy Study Questions

The following questions can be assigned as desired, depending on your curriculum or reading group interests.

  1. When governments are secretive and invade people’s privacy, how does this make citizens feel?
  2. Will those who are spied upon be more likely to participate in self-governance by voting and running for public office?
  3. Is Apple doing enough to reduce the exposure that customers have when it comes to storing data that might be vulnerable to snooping governments or hackers?
  4. What are examples of when it would be okay for a company to hand over private personal data and records?
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