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Big tech firms will protect your privacy…if it helps the bottom line

Major Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo have made fortunes mining your data, tracking your surfing habits, and learning everything there is to learn about you. But now they care about your privacy.

Or at least they're claiming to.

According to an Associated Press article by Michael Liedtke and Marcy Gordon, "The industry's profit machine has become tarnished by revelations that the National Security Agency trolls deep into the everyday lives of Web surfers." In an attempt to polish over the tarnish, the major companies "are becoming more aggressive in their attempts to counter any perception" that they've been helping government spying efforts. Let's hope that they're caring about more than the perception of protecting our privacy.

And the perception is pretty bad, to the point of turning into a public relations nightmare. "The entire tech industry has been implicated and is now facing a global backlash," states Daniel Castro, a Senior Analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). In an ITIF study, Castro predicted that the NSA's practices will cost U.S. tech companies as much as $35 billion in revenue.

No wonder that Microsoft's top lawyer, Brad Smith, promised last week in an Official Microsoft Blog post that "we are taking steps to ensure governments use legal process rather than technological brute force to access customer data."

Smith went on to say that activities by the NSA "seriously undermine confidence in the security and privacy of online communications." He calls "government snooping…an 'advanced persistent threat,' alongside sophisticated malware and cyber attacks." Smith promises "immediate and coordinated action," including "expanding encryption across our services" and "reinforcing legal protections for our customers’ data."

Of course, these companies have never been innocent of snooping, themselves. Their bottom lines depend on knowing as much about you as possible. "It's all about who can amass the most personal data" explains Ethan Oberman, CEO of SpiderOak, a company that promises to provide private cloud services. "If these companies are going to engage in these data wars, the security and privacy of this data becomes of critical significance."

Arguably, there is a difference between the data mining these companies are guilty of and what the NSA has been up to. If Google knows that you're more likely to buy a cookbook than a bicycle tire, and send advertising to you accordingly, little harm is done. But if the government tracks who you know and what you do, that's a far more serious invasion of our privacy.

Of course, the private sector's data mining and the government's vast collecting aren't really separate. The first provides massive information to the second, sometimes with the companies' knowledge and sometimes without it.

But thanks to the bad reputation these companies earned by cooperating with the NSA, they now appear to be fighting against government intervention. It's too early to tell whether they're truly interested in protecting your privacy (or at least protecting it from anyone but themselves), or if they're only worried about appearances.

Let's hope it's the former.

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