Internet companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook are increasingly co-opted for surveillance work as the information they gather proves irresistible to law enforcement agencies, Web experts said this week.
Although such companies try to keep their users’ information private, their business models depend on exploiting it to sell targeted advertising, and when governments demand they hand it over, they have little choice but to comply.
Suggestions that BlackBerry maker RIM might give user data to British police after its messenger service was used to coordinate riots this summer caused outrage — as has the spying on social media users by more oppressive governments.
But the vast amount of personal information that companies like Google collect to run their businesses has become simply too valuable for police and governments to ignore, delegates to the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi said.
“When the possibility exists for information to be obtained that wasn’t possible before, it’s entirely understandable that law enforcement is interested,” Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf told Reuters in an interview.
Demands from governments for Internet companies to hand over user information have become routine, according to online privacy researcher and activist Christopher Soghoian, who makes extensive use of freedom-of-information requests in his work.
Some governments are requiring Internet companies to collect more data and keep it for longer, said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, executive director of Poland’s Panoptykon Foundation, which campaigns for human rights in light of modern surveillance.
The ease and cost of surveillance are at an all-time low, Soghoian said, with Google charging an administrative fee of $25 to hand over data, Yahoo charging $20, and Microsoft and Facebook providing data for free.
“Now, one police officer from the comfort of their desk can track 20, 30, 50 people all through Web interfaces provided by mobile companies and cloud computing companies,” he said.
“The marginal cost of surveilling one more person is now essentially approaching zero.”
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