How Much is Your Data Worth to the Intelligence Community?

The Wall Street Journal worries that the lucrative marketplace for data about private citizens is treating the government as a customer. It reminds us that exploiting individuals’ data for the purpose of selling them goods they don’t need is legitimate, but selling it to the government is a no-no, even if the state is willing to pay the price.

Curious businessman secretly looking at laptop screen of colleague, sneaking peek at other computer, stealing idea, copying private information on exam, nosy clerk spying on coworker at workplace © fizkes /

June 28, 2023 03:48 EDT

In the old days, long before social media, information was called data. People produced data by conducting research and identifying facts. The best facts were statistics.

The very idea of data contained the notion of scientific objectivity. We saw data as a resource that could serve to build our understanding of objective phenomena. We even tended to give a preference to “raw data,” which we could then attempt to interpret. Data achieved some degree of significance only after expert human analysis could make sense of it. The distinction in people’s minds between data and information was very real.

As predicted by Alvin Toffler back in 1980 in his book The Third Wave, we are now living in the “information age.” Toffler described an impending historical shift of major historical proportions, whose implications would be both economic and cultural. The digital revolution had already begun transforming the world in which we lived and worked. In Toffler’s eyes, the information economy was destined to surpass and, in some sense, replace the industrial revolution.

Mainframe computers had been around for several decades, but their use was largely confined to industrial and military applications. By 1980, four years after the launch of Apple 1 and one year before the first IBM PC, the public was becoming aware of the major role computing might have, not just in industry but also in their daily lives. People began to see computing as something more than managing data. The advent of “word processing” — a strange, data-inflected label invented by techies — opened up the possibility of injecting  personal expression into data.

When in the 1990s the internet emerged, followed a decade or so later by social media, data largely disappeared from our vocabulary and was replaced by the notion of information. IT, information technology, had become a major sector of the economy, replacing the old field of Data Processing.

The replacement of the idea of data by that of information meant that the meaning of “information” itself changed. The act of “informing” traditionally signified transmitting knowledge that one person possessed to another. It described a voluntary act of communication. The digital world changed all that. Now that the notion of data stored in memory banks and managed by algorithms has been relabelled “information,” our very notion of information has lost its sense of transmissible knowledge. Instead, like everything else in our commercial world, it has become a marketable commodity.

That explains this observation in a recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article: “Commercially available information, or CAI, has grown in such scale that it has begun to replicate the results of intrusive surveillance techniques once used on a more targeted and limited basis.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Commercially available information:

A specific category of easily obtainable data concerning the habits and lifestyle of ordinary people that can be evaluated in monetary terms and exploited for a variety of useful purposes, such as selling those people items they don’t need, manipulating their habits and values and policing their actions.

Contextual note

In other words, the old notion of informing — and thereby producing information — contained the notion of sharing something one person knew with another who could benefit from the knowledge. The new notion of information focuses on transaction: buying and selling. The older meaning of informing implied the dynamic act of deciding to make some bit of knowledge available. The newer meaning sees data not only as static and inert, but as packageable, which makes it “commercially available.”

Information in the old acceptance existed within a social context. It contained a notion of personal accountability to the degree that the person who shared information could be asked to account for its source and explain its meaning. Today’s inert notion of information cancels any notion of accountability. The information is “in the system.” At best, the system can point to a previous context in which the information was stored but tracing the intention behind it or its ultimate meaning becomes impossible.

The article describes the historical outcome in these terms. “In recent years, data brokers’ offerings have grown from basic address history and demographic information to include the trail of information generated by smartphone devices and apps, social media platforms, automobiles, and location trackers such as fitness watches.”

So now we not only have information as an inert piece of data but something far more interesting: a “trail of information.” Each trail belongs to an actual human being, about whom the new “owner” (purchaser) of the information has no legitimate knowledge other than the trail itself.  The chain of accountability through explanatory exchange has been replaced by a trail of static data.

Historical note

The capitalist economy grew and developed its principles and rules out of the experience of colonialism. The opportunity to access vast stores of raw materials that could then be transformed into industrial products and sold on a massive scale became the template for enterprise and investment. It’s perfectly logical that when raw data appeared in a materially consumable form — stored in a memory bank — the same logic would apply.

WSJ’s article points out, apparently considering it an anomaly, that “the marketplace is loosely regulated in the US, which has no comprehensive national privacy law.” But WSJ, if it truly cares about being consistent with its own proclaimed ideology that generally opposes government regulation, should celebrate that fact. In its usual reading of economic behavior, WSJ assumes that the duty of every citizen of a capitalist nation is to seek and exploit opportunities to make a profit from whatever is available to buy or sell. Stealing however is forbidden.

The problem for WSJ in this instance is that “the Office of the Director of National Intelligence appeared unaware which federal intelligence agencies were buying Americans’ personal data.” In other words, buying and selling personal data about private citizens isn’t a problem so long as it is commercial profiteers who are engaged in it. The problem is that the state should have no access to it. Suddenly it becomes a constitutional issue.

To make its case, the article quotes Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. “If the government can buy its way around Fourth Amendment due-process, there will be few meaningful limits on government surveillance.”

Wyden is one of the rare Democrats to appear worried about the intelligence community’s encroachment on citizens’ right to privacy. Back in 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed what the NSA was up to, Glenn Greenwald pointed out in The Guardian, that Wyden had “spent years publicly winking and hinting that the NSA under President Obama was engaged in all sorts of radical and abusive domestic surveillance.”

In recent years, Americans have experienced a curious evolution. Democrats who once saw the CIA and the intelligence community (IC) in general as a suspicious gang of criminals with devious plans that might even include assassination, have taken sides with the IC, that must in all cases be trusted. Democrats routinely elevate the “information” the CIA spreads to the media, especially if it concerns Russia, to the status of unimpeachable truth. This pathology began even before Russiagate.

Republicans, on the contrary, have allowed themselves to be critical of the IC, none more than President Donald Trump who complained of the manipulations of the Deep State. The WSJ is consistent with more traditional Republican ideology that simply doesn’t want to see the state — whether deep or shallow — regulating the private activities of its citizens. Private commercial companies may spy on private citizens, in the name of the legitimate pursuit of profit, but not the state.

In 2022, Wyden introduced legislation to “ban data brokers from selling or transferring location data and health data.” Unlike WSJ, which only opposes the government’s use of CAI, Wyden opposes the buying and selling of it, whether to government agencies or commercial entities.

On his web page he makes that clear: “Data brokers collect and sell intensely personal data from millions of Americans, often without their consent or knowledge, reaping massive profits.”

The WSJ has no fundamental objection to CAI as long as it limits itself to reaping massive profits and doesn’t become PAI: Politically available information.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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