National Intelligence Lawyer Wonders Why People Are Fine With Sharing Data On Facebook But Not With The Government

from the deliberately-obtuse dept

It’s a point that’s been raised by many people in arguments about privacy and other aspects of government data collection. In a speech given last Friday, the general counsel for the Director of National Intelligence, Robert Litt, broached the topic publicly. After defending the NSA’s programs as completely legal (thanks to the Third Party Doctrine), Litt asked more directly:

“Why is it that people are willing to expose large quantities of information to private parties but don’t want the Government to have the same information?”

It’s a valid question, but not when asked by the overseer of government intelligence agencies. Daniel Stuckey at Motherboard points out that there’s a big difference between voluntary and involuntary “exposure.”

Now, I’d hate to answer Litt’s question so simply by saying that consumers are extorted by their love of what they consume, but it’s part of it. And trust in companies that give us free things, that advance self-expression is an inalienable consumer right. If the government, theoretically, already knows everything there is to know—when we didn’t directly volunteer our information—it then provides momentum for a rally cry. The shame and disgust when Edward Snowden pulled back the curtain reverberates that government by virtue is supposed to be more clear, more holistic, and an idealized reflection of ourselves.

It’s a false equivalent. Thousands of people expose tons of information every day using social media platforms, but they do so with the implicit understanding that the free service is deriving some sort of benefit from their interactions. When the government scoops up the same data, there’s no perceived benefit, not even the supposed “targeting” of terrorists.

Furthermore, as Stuckey states, we want to believe our government is above snooping on our “private” interactions. (Private in the sense that they’re between individuals, no matter how many others can view or interact with the conversations.) If we initiate the exchange, we don’t feel victimized by the lack of privacy.

Beyond that, every social media service has some sort of privacy settings built in that limit what others can see. Most of these have only limited effectiveness, but the fact is that users have the option to exclude others. The underlying platform is the facilitator and therefore, has “earned” the “right” to mine data and can never truly be excluded, and we (for the most part) accept this. There is no “exclude government” option, other than Litt’s implicit suggestion: if you don’t want the government to see it, don’t post it in public arenas.

But the most troubling part of Litt’s question is this.

It’s great that the U.S. government behaves better than corporations on privacy—too bad it trusts/subcontracts corporations to deal with that privacy—but it’s an uncomfortable thing to even be in a position of having to compare the two. This is the point Litt misses, and it’s not a fine one.

This is the crux of the issue. When someone asks why we don’t value our privacy more, in terms of social networking, they have a point. When someone asks why we’re willing to give Facebook plenty of data but resent the government doing the same thing, the point is no longer valid. Handing data to advertisers is a lot easier to stomach than the impression that the government is reading over your shoulder.

Ultimately, though, we should never have gotten to the point where the government’s thirst for data on American citizens exceeds the demands of corporations. We expect corporations to act in self-interest. We expect our government to be a lot more selfless and its intelligence agencies more willing to sacrifice some effectiveness in order to protect the rights of American citizens.

If Litt honestly feels people don’t have privacy expectations in regards to data shared with a third party, he should put some manpower into launching (or whatever) and see how many people are willing to sign up. Facebook vs. government isn’t a fair comparison and Litt knows it. He’s just using the question to prop up the third party exception that enables the NSA to acquire vast amounts of data. What he’s doing is making a convenient presumption that these users are aware of the protections they lose by sharing information with a third party — and, consequently, the government. Part of the “expectation of privacy” is the “expectation,” something the Supreme Court has noted, and it’s safe to say that many Facebook/Google/Twitter users don’t expect the government to be accessing their data.

Finally, there’s also the utilitarian aspect. As the New Jersey Supreme Court pointed out earlier, no one uses a cell phone simply to provide location data for law enforcement and investigative agencies. And no one utilizes social media in order to provide the government with a treasure trove of personal information.

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Comments on “National Intelligence Lawyer Wonders Why People Are Fine With Sharing Data On Facebook But Not With The Government”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Simple answer

“Why is it that people are willing to expose large quantities of information to private parties but don’t want the Government to have the same information?”

Because the government doesn’t allow us to “opt-out” – the NSA hoarding everything was never a “choice” that we freely made.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find these bullshit excuses insulting to my intelligence.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Willfuly ignorant or just clueless?

If he can’t tell the difference between ‘choosing what personal information to make public, choosing how public you want to make it, and choosing who gets to view it’ and ‘having the government grab every little bit of information on you, whether you chose to make it public or not’, then either he’s being willfully blind, or has no freakin’ clue about people or even basic psychology.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Willfuly ignorant or just clueless?

When I talk with people…either
A) they don’t use Facebook/social media because of lessons learned
B) don’t understand how the meta datas can possibly show a picture of them. And, even so – they misdialed, got lost in the wrong area of town, or fat-fingered a google search. these people DON’T understand how revealing it is.

And, when you tell them about Target sending pregnancy coupons to teenagers, the response is that they don’t want to shop at Target. But – they fail to see the big picture.

PainfullyObvious says:

So to put this in perspective....

Meet out actors for this analogy. (in alphabetical order)

Bubba : Serving 10 years for agg. assault.
Steve : Aka : The public, you, me, everyone.
Thomas : Working at a local branch of a Bank.

Example 1, Steve meets Thomas, they start a relationship and have consentual sex.

Example 2, Steve meets Bubba, and is continiously raped.

Robert Litt seems to think theese two scenarios are the same… One is consentual, the other is a violation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So to put this in perspective....

your analogy intrigues me. just out of curiosity, if ‘steve’, within the context of the analogy, is everyone, or, a collective, does that mean that the sex between steve and thomas is group sex? and the rape between bubba and steve gang rape? is it gang rape if a gang is being raped?

Anonymous Coward says:

because people are stupid enough to think that what they’re saying/writing is only available to the person(s) they are in contact with at the time. if content is written, they think it is still only viewable to the person it was meant for. in fact, that is how it should be. all conversations should be private/personal and not available under any circumstances to the world and his wife! it’s only how it is because that’s how Facebook and similar ‘social networking’ sites want them to be and make them to be. whether law enforcement forced them to be like it or not, i dont know, but definitely wouldn’t be surprised. they want to know the ins and the outs of a ducks arse hole so probably did do.

Transmitte (profile) says:

The arguments coming from the people trying to defend the NSA are getting truly absurd.

I use FB sparingly and do not vomit up just and/or everything that comes up in my life or my head. Not everyone needs that kind of diatribe, well, except he NSA apparently.

NSA on the other hand has just raked in all my info, for no reason other than it feels it has some right to do so, regardless of the fact the most egregious thing I have done of late is getting a speeding ticket(several years back I might add, but I guess that warrants taking my info). Worse yet, they’ve passed laws that say they can, legally. WTF is that horseshit?

Quit trying to claim you’re protecting everyone by killing our rights and obliterating our right to privacy, no matter how little we have it. More to the point, quit playing the “Terrorism” card, I think we’ve had enough of that already to be bluntly honest.

Baldaur Regis (profile) says:

The 800 pound gorilla in the chat room

is that a government can take away your freedom and/or kill you on a set of ever-shifting whims. What can Facebook do without repercussions? Sell you out to advertisers?

The US government has outsourced way too many functions, has become far too intertwined with corporations, to understand that even asking this kind of question is the failure of a government to separate itself from those who see the public merely as data points.

Ac360 says:

We do give a lot of information to Facebook, but at the of the day it is information that we have knowingly and actively provided. We have made a conscious decision to do it. They may gleam much more from it than we anticipate but we enabled it.

The government data mining is done without consent and is done apparently on all information that exists. This is not a minor difference.

There is also the issue of worst case. What is the worst thing most ppl think of coming from facebook’s information on you? More ads? What is the worst the government can do to you? … It’s a lot worse…

Ben (profile) says:

Why People Are Fine With Sharing Data On Facebook But Not With The Government

Why People Are Fine With Sharing Data On Facebook But Not With The Government

Really Simple Answer:

They give something in return

For giving facebook your information, they help you find old school mates, or relatives, or coworkers, or friends. And you control how much of that you want them to use

About all the government can say they give you is “security” and I’m not too sure they use the definition I expect.



“Why is it that people are willing to expose large quantities of information to private parties but don’t want the Government to have the same information?”

SOME people are willing to do this.

MANY people are not.

Participating in Facebook is not compulsory and many choose not to. Many people were paranoid about the likes of Facebook even before this NSA nonsense came to light.

Anonymous Coward says:

Facebook options

While I realze the problem goes way beyond Facebook, it, at least, is a starting point. They should add check boxes in the “share with” settings, like: “Share with NSA”, “Share with FBI”, “Share with DOJ” and “Share with DOD”. Make them so they can’t be UNchecked (so that it’s honest).
See how many people complain …

Anonymous Coward says:

>Why is it that people are willing to expose large quantities of information to private parties but don’t want the Government to have the same information?

Perhaps because we choose who sees that information and share it with them, rather than having the information taken without permission or due cause?

What a stupid question, and the implications it has is even more absurd.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

What my neighbor does

I seriously don’t understand the point of bringing up that people overshare on social media as a justification for government spying.

Ignoring that the two kinds of spying cannot be directly compared like that, there’s another implication that keeps niggling at me: that my neighbor is OK with something does not mean that I should be OK with it.

When my neighbor posts things on Facebook, that says nothing about whether or not I am OK with posting things on Facebook. That my neighbor shares every detail of his life online in no way implies that it’s OK for the government to spy on us all.

madasahatter (profile) says:


Dear Idiot:

People choose to use Facebook, Google, and other online services because they find the service useful. Yes, these services collect information to aid advertisers and thus make money. No one is forced to use these services and often have a some control over how much information is shared.

However, NSA data vacuuming is not voluntary and no one has control over what is collected and with whom it is shared. The IRS scandals should make one very, very, very wary of too much information in the hands of any government agency.

Yours truly

A. User

Greevar (profile) says:

Why don't I want the government having my data?


The worst I get from the corporations is ads for penis pills or some other narcissism-feeding product.

What I can hope to expect from the government is to have some thug on a power trip jam a rifle in my asshole for some sarcastic comment I made, all to stop the “terrorists”. There are no fucking terrorists except the ones wearing badges.

I’ll take care of my own fucking security from terrorists thank-you-very-fucking-much. The government should be stopping everyone else from trying to infringe on my civil rights instead of violating them to make the security job easier. Any organization that tries to provide both security and liberty will fail at both. Security is the application of coercion and liberty is the absence of coercion. They are mutually exclusive.

Anonymous Coward says:

Dear National Intelligence Lawyer Asshole,

I protect my privacy to the max by using optimal settings along with tools. This is something most people do not know much about, however you’re teaching the entire country to learn fast.

We came to this land on the ideas of freedom, privacy, and prosperity and we built The United States of America on top of those ideals. We fought hard and many lives were lost fighting for those ideas. Now we’re at a fork in the road where greed and lust for power has put those very ideas in jeopardy. To give in and destroy those over the threat of terrorism is completely the opposite of our reason for coming here.

We should be fighting for those rights with every last breath as we did all those years ago. Your job is to protect us not only from foreign threats but domestic as well,and yes even internal corruption. You’re not fit for the job and hopefully enough people will wake up to clean house of all this corrupt filth destroying our nation.

You’ve betrayed the nation in the most despicable way possible and you deserve nothing less than life in prison.

Commenter007 says:

We give Facebook our data because we get something in return: a way to organize our data and socialize with friends. I would be a lot happier about giving my data to NSA if I got something in return.

How about this: US government creates database. Database contains all information US government has on me. I have access to all of it. I can share it with whomever I want. I can use it for official purposes (eg registering to vote, applying for benefits, defending myself in court, etc).

UK is doing this right now. FTC has recommended NSA make its PRISM data available to the people who they collected it from ( There is a guy on trial for bank robbery who could be exonerated by NSA data and is suing for it. (

Mark Zuckerberg knows more about me than my own parents. I’d feel a lot jollier about NSA having my data if they let me access in easy format. Just think of the apps developers could make that use your NSA data. Heck, just look at Wolfram Alpha can do with your Facebook data ( Imagine what could be done with your telephone data.

Toot Rue (profile) says:


“We expect our government to be a lot more selfless”…

This is the problem – we shouldn’t ever trust a government. Every government that has failed has done so after betraying it’s citizens. Every government that currently exists is slowly encroaching on the rights of it’s citizens. It isn’t a matter of if a government goes after it’s citizens, it’s a matter of when.

We should take every opportunity to trim the size of government, and what little government is needed should be made as local as is possible.

Sandra (user link) says:


For the same reason all those that apposed the privacy act bill before and continued up until “ALL Of THEM” changed their mind after all this time must have had something to do with everything that the NSA had on them from spying on them so they could manipulate a vote to continue to get anything on all the people to use when ever its needed that might be why we don’t want the government in our business and I don’t think that the people should put up with a group of law makers that don’t do their job and do what is right for all of us and this country, isn’t there something that we can do to put a stop to all this bullshit our government pulls and those that are suppose to represent us need to grow a pair, since the peasants aren’t the only ones getting spied on. THEY have way more to hide from us, they should be worried about then most of us do.
When the government starts using that info to blackmail or setup some poor fool, not to mention the government should set the example as a police officer should. Not by being above the law but maintaining it with honesty and integrity. Since our government wants to get into our business using the excuse to find terrorists then they of all people should take great care to protect and respect the position. They are in and guard our privacy and our rights because they most of all need to lead by example and do right by this country and those that elected them if we were to spy on them and store all private information of theirs we would be put in prison so then I must ask why are they not being arrested because all the information their storing they have to read it to find any terrorists so they must know most of the people aren’t doing anything according to their own rules their isn’t any reason to keep records of people not involved with terrorism or even suspected of it then they have no legitimate reason to keep excess records since we don’t have money to pay debts they shouldn’t be able to afford to build another larger NSA facility should they seems that all these stupid laws should be able to be used to deal with them as well since in the past every over grown government That tried to lord over and enslave its people always falls and our government is no exception. God said He would give us leaders with the minds of children, that’s not an insult on children just means they wouldn’t solve problem but create more because they didn’t have the ability to work together without fighting along with childish behavior or like selfish spoiled brats that must have it all while everyone else pay for it but what is really shameful is that they take from those that are poor and disabled or to old all that was set up to take care of them then make others so they say pay for their keep and force those to old and sick to slave labor or the men and women that fight for this country how when their tour ends our government takes away from them and leaves the damaged and families at the mercy of all those with the heart and what little they can give to care for them one more thing that cluster fuck called Obama care is nothing more then a way to get people to be forced with state and government run medical care anyone that have been on any kind of aid and had to endure the welfare clinics can tell and should really speak up to what everyone that isn’t rich is going to be stuck with but here’s the thing everyone I believe is going to have to pay for it all the hidden taxes and fees that we the people will not be able to pay for so this is what I don’t get in order for it to be set up won’t the people in all the states be made to pay for everything but our gov will use the money to run it they take the money from us to run the stupid program and the the gov gives the money to the states to run everything and u also have to buy your insurance isn’t that the way its set up basically, so if all of the people are the ones being taxed out of a future with a home and clothes and food or anything else to pay for it then shouldn’t the people be the ones to determine how it should be or if they even want it plus one thing that most have probably forgotten but when they first got all the paperwork done and decided how it would go they knew the numbers for the whole damn thing wouldn’t work so later they say you can decide in your state to opt out of it so they can turn around and pull every dirty trick possible to retaliate for not wanting it this is what our gov does like children that when they act up and you decide to go home and not play with them they break the toys or rip up your color book and crayons because they told you ok go home, then you do so their getting even oh I think I just described the Obama administration we don’t need the NSA to look for terrorists to keep them from destroying our country we have congress, Obama,and his henchman for that besides the terrorists are probably to busy laughing at us to plan acts of terror I apologize for this post being so long but I hate the feeling of helplessness of being poor disabled and having to live this way like alot of others that don’t stand a snowballs’ chance in hell

DB (profile) says:

Not Secret?

Maybe a different approach, and I certainly respect the reasonable comments above, is that once you post it on Facebook, it is really no longer private. Therefore why would you have an “expectation of privacy”? Consider if these were trade secrets. They can only be trade secrets if they are secret. If someone posts a company’s trade secrets on Facebook, then secrecy is lost and there is not a misappropriation claim against the next “re-publisher.”

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