Feds vs. Silicon Valley: Who do you trust less?

Americans trust the feds more than tech companies to safeguard their data -- a sad truth that should put Silicon Valley on notice

Feds vs. Silicon Valley: Who do you trust less?
Credit: Nasrul Ekram/Flickr

Silicon Valley likes to criticize government as stagnant and clueless about technology and business. But both the tech industry and the government are clueless about a critical point: the value of privacy. Americans trust neither to safeguard their privacy.

That matters a lot because both Silicon Valley and the government (federal, state, and local, and across the world) have bet on privacy invasion as key strategic directions. I believe those privacy-busting strategies will generate a backlash from customers/citizens. In fact, it's already started.

Whether it's Google or Facebook assembling detailed digital profiles of every human being connected to the Internet so that they can manipulate our purchases or various governments doing the same in the name of thwarting terrorism and criminal hacking, people are unhappy and distrustful.

The latest evidence of that comes from Pew Research, which has for years been analyzing sentiments and behavior of Internet users, which is pretty much everyone these days. Pew has been monitoring citizens' trust level -- which turns out to be mistrust -- since Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations of rampant, deep digital spying on citizens by the American NSA, British GCHQ, and other government agencies.

Only 31 percent of Americans trust the U.S. government to safeguard their data. If you think that's bad, the U.S. government beat the tech industry, with only credit card agencies more trusted than the feds. Yes, Americans trust the feds more than Silicon Valley when it comes to privacy.

Pew Research privacy survey: trust levels Pew Research

The percentage of Americans who say they trust various institutions to keep records of their activities private and secure shows that Silicon Valley ranks below the federal government and credit card companies in trustworthiness.

If that doesn't disturb the tech industry, I don't know what will. Yes, Silicon Valley is often tone-deaf to regular people's issues -- that's why its robber-baron actions so deeply offend many people in the San Francisco Bay Area -- in the same insular way that Hollywood and Wall Street are. (It's amazing how much Silicon Valley is like those corrupt industries.) But it also has a tradition of empowering the everyday person, rooted in a noble egalitarian notion that somehow coexists with its monied insularity.

That duality is why Google (along with other tech firms) lobbies the feds to permit widespread encryption and curtail the NSA to ensure citizens' privacy, while at the same time building ever deeper information-gathering technology across all its services and apps. Silicon Valley seems to think it's fine for them to collect your data because it's for your own good, but not for governments to do it.

Governments think it's for your own good, too, when they do it. Of course, we have bills in Congress to limit the worst of the NSA offenses revealed by Snowden, as well as President Barack Obama advocating for a privacy bill of rights. Yet the same Congress and president are in charge of the rampant spying that has taken place -- and still does.

No wonder people don't trust any of them.

The Pew survey also shows that two issues concern people more than others: They want access to and control over the information collected about them, and they don't want to be monitored without their explicit permission. Neither Silicon Valley nor the government do either of these.

Pew Research privacy survey: where privacy matters Pew Research

A Pew Research survey shows that Americans want control over information about them and assurance that they're not being monitored without permission -- neither of which the government or the tech industry honor.

Sure, there are fig-leaf moves to pretend to get permission or to pretend to allow access. But a check box for legalese fine print doesn't constitute real permission, nor do the weak privacy settings and controls that most tech companies provide (and the feds don't).

People put up with a lot for a long time. It took decades, for example, for Americans to get fed up with a broken health care system -- and they're still fighting over the latest solution. The same was true for civil rights of all stripes and the bevy of social welfare/safety-net programs.

I don't expect a mass uprising over privacy, but the consistent distrust of both the tech industry and government will continue to boil. In the not-too-distant future it won't be fringe politicians like Rand Paul on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left who are agitating for change -- it will be all of us.

Even if the government isn't up to that trust challenge, Silicon Valley is too smart and too progressive not to do so and find a better outcome. Figure it out. That has to be a lot more rewarding -- and lucrative -- than developing yet another silly social app or concierge service for the gilded.

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