Yes, there actually is a huge difference between government and corporate surveillance

November 4, 2013

When it comes to your online privacy — or what little is left of it — businesses and governments act in some pretty similar ways. They track your credit card purchases. They mine your e-mail for information about you. They may even monitor your movements in the real world. Corporate and government surveillance also diverge in important ways. Companies are looking to make money off of you, while the government aims to prevent attacks that would halt that commercial activity (along with some other things).

But the biggest difference between the two has almost no relation to who's doing the surveillance and everything to do with your options in response. Last week, we asked you whether you'd changed your online behavior as a result of this year's extended national conversation about privacy — and if so, which form of snooping annoyed you more. Looking through the responses so far, this one caught my eye:

The government because I can't *choose* not to be spied on by them. The government also has the power to kill or imprison me which no private company has. I am a firm believer that our founding fathers created a system that respected individual privacy and to see it eroded by the federal government concerns me deeply. I am a strong believer in the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th amendments.

Putting aside the government's power to capture or kill, your inability to refuse the government is what distinguishes the NSA from even the nosiest companies on Earth. In a functioning marketplace, boycotting a company that you dislike — for whatever reason — is fairly easy. Diners who object to eating fake meat can stop frequenting Taco Bell. Internet users that don't like Google collecting their search terms can try duckduckgo, an anonymous search engine.

By contrast, it's nearly impossible to simply pick up your belongings and quit the United States. For most people, that would carry some significant costs — quitting your job, for instance, or disrupting your children's education, or leaving friends and family. Those costs can be high enough to outweigh the benefits of recovering some hard-to-measure modicum of privacy. Besides, leaving the country would ironically expose you to even greater risk of surveillance, since you'd no longer be covered by the legal protections granted to people (even foreign terror suspects) that arrive to U.S. shores.

There are still some ways to shield yourself from the NSA. To the best of our knowledge, the government has yet to crack the encryption protocols behind Tor, the online traffic anonymizing service. But Tor's users are also inherently the object of greater suspicion precisely because they're making efforts to cover their tracks.

In the business world, no single company owns a monopoly over your privacy. The same can't really be said about the government.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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