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Ain't nobody got time for fine prints!

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JUNE 11, 2013

People face trade-offs, says the most fundamental principle in economics. Facing the recent NSA controversy, the trade-off is between security and privacy. According to President Obama, we “can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.”

Besides the fact that 100 percent security is simply impossible to attain, most people start out with less than perfect privacy anyway — that is, we have been willingly supplying our information to online third parties without bothering to read the fine print.

For instance, Apple’s privacy policy states that it collects “a variety of information, including your name, mailing address, phone number, email address, contact preferences, credit card information” and Social Security number. Similar data are also collected from your family and friends whenever you share your Apple products with them. Now, what most of us don’t know is that Apple reserves the rights to share these data with “strategic partners that work with Apple to provide products and services, or that help Apple market to customers.” It is unclear who these “strategic partners” might be or the extent to which that term is applicable.

Online powerhouses like Netflix, Walmart and Amazon also adopt a similar privacy statement. Why do you think we often get those so-called “interest-based ads” on Amazon? Or videos that we should watch on Netflix? It’s because they collect our data, including our preferences, and manipulate that information to their advantage.

By definition, such usage is not illegal. The Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Miller (1976) and Smith v. Maryland (1979) that any information voluntarily supplied to a third party ceases to enjoy the Fourth Amendment.

If the private market can legally use our data in such a way, then why can’t the government? The truth is, these data mining tools have significantly improved law enforcement. For example, “the aid of technology at the United States National Security Agency” helped us capture Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

The cost of something is what you give up to get it, says another economics principle. Personally, I don’t think the cost is high at all — if shifting through metadata can escalate the capture of terrorists, then by all means, go for it. After all, unless the government has reason to believe that you’re worth investigating, you will be just another number among hundreds of millions of numbers. As one Twitter user puts it, “[I]f it can save people from another 9/11 like attack, go for it. I don’t care. My emails/phone calls are not that exciting anyway.”

Anh Thai ponders about insidious world problems in her Tuesday blog. Contact Anh Thai at [email protected].

JUNE 13, 2013