Those who have closely followed recent revelations about U.S. government inquiries into online user data could be excused for thinking all internet tracking perpetrates an inexcusable breach of trust. Last summer's leaks, alleging the National Security Agency had been granted direct access to the servers of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and other internet companies, have understandably caused alarm among consumer and privacy advocates.
The large web portals have leapt to their own defenses, releasing official but generally banal statements touting the sanctity of user data and reassuring these same users that the information, when revealed to the government, is done so only to comply with subpoenas and legal orders. In the words of Facebook's chief security officer, "Protecting the privacy of our users and their data is a top priority." But protect them from whom?
Almost lost in the debate is the justification for user data being recorded and retained in the first place. The libertarian tone appropriated by internet companies may convince patrons their personal data aren't being catalogued and mined by Uncle Sam. However, it still fails to address the implicit bargain they're making with the very companies sworn to protect their information. Our services, in exchange for your information. Quid pro quo.
Unauthorized prying into online data can, and should, be regulated. But what if the entities engaged in the prying are the same ones to whom we've willingly turned over our personal information? Do searchers on Google or posters on Facebook hold a legitimate expectation of privacy when they use these services?