Why the US Government Needs a User Agreement

Before the US government gets carried away trying to regulate Facebook and other major tech companies, it should take a very long look inside its own walls.

The U.S. government is the biggest data miner in the country, dwarfing any tech company, including Facebook, in terms of the impact their data collection has on Americans lives. It starts with the Census Bureau—America’s repository of big data—which collects information on Americans’ ethnicity, age, health status, military status and more.

But it doesn’t stop there—the data also show where Americans live, what kind of housing they live in, what they earn, where they live, how they commute, what they spend on food, rent, housing, clothing, whether they have a desktop or a laptop, whether they’re on the Food Stamp program, and how long it takes to get to work to name just a few of the 77 questions in the American Community Survey.

And here’s my favorite: “About how much do you think this house and lot, apartment, or mobile home (and lot, if owned) would sell for if it were for sale?”

From this data, policies are made that affect people’s lives and livelihood, including tax policy, federal appropriations to states, and other social services that impact businesses and individuals. Depending on your view of the role of government, where you live, and how these policies affect you, you might see this loss of personal privacy as an unacceptable violation of privacy. For others, it’s a welcome use of information gathered, sorted, analyzed, and acted on by a government that should be more involved in people’s everyday lives, not less.

Unlike data collected by the government that’s mandated, Facebook users voluntarily post their personal information on the FB platform, or voluntarily allow Google to know their location and are well aware that anyone—including any company—can see what is posted and how it could affect them for good or bad.

There are multiple examples of wonderful stories of humanity and decency because of personal posts on Facebook: When a Welsh skydiver survived a 12,000 jump that resulted in him smashing into a parked van, FB strangers raised $50,000 to help pay his bills. When a Kentucky woman posted a selfie of her beaten face on FB calling for help (her husband had ripped out the phone from the wall), a friend saw it and called the police. The husband was arrested. There are hundreds, probably thousands of stories like this—suicides averted, longtime friends found, families reunited, even lost cats and dogs found.

But there are also stories of college applicants rejected and jobs lost (I’ll bet some were government jobs) because the candidate had posted multiple photos of wild drinking parties or was smoking something you couldn’t buy at Walmart.

Other social networks reveal much more personal information, depending on what the user wants to reveal—and why.

The difference between social networks, where people can voluntarily post personal information on the internet, and the US government, where the collection of personal information and data is required (and in some cases surreptitiously acquired) is important. In the first case, people who have voluntarily shared their information on a social network are generally fully aware that anyone in any country could access that information and potentially use it to target ads and products or for more nefarious deeds.

To assume that 87 million Facebook users don’t know that pushing the “public” button on Facebook means anyone can see your posts is to infantilize millions more American adults who might have had their information scraped by the British marketing company Cambridge Analytica for purposes of ad targeting. That doesn’t excuse Facebook from not knowing that it happened and revealing the problem earlier.

Still, the government has a greater impact. The IRS has been hacked twice, most recently last year when more than 145 million Americans had their data stolen. And similarly, in 2015, 21 million Social Security numbers were stolen, followed by the massive Equifax theft of 143 million Social Security numbers. The data collected by the Census Bureau is highly personal and drives national policy, including how much you might be charged for drugs by Medicare based on your zip code.

That’s something even Facebook can’t do. 


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