Twice in two days now, I’ve come across news articles using the term “Big Brother” to refer to private sector information practices that affect privacy. Big Brother is not an appropriate shorthand here. In his book 1984, George Orwell gave the name “Big Brother” to the oppressive government that observed and controlled the lives of the book’s protagonists. The unique oppressive powers of this governmental entity were a central motif of the book.
Yesterday’s Washington Post had an article headlined “FTC Wants to Know What Big Brother Knows About You.” Is the Federal Trade Commision examining warrantless wiretapping, one hopes? Alas, no — they’re looking at “behavioral targeting” on the Web. This is when advertisers collect information about Web surfers with cookies, using it to direct more relevant ads their way.
Consumers who care to can “opt out” of nearly all “behavioral targeting” by setting their browsers not to receive third-party cookies. In both Internet Explorer and Firefox, the “Tools” pull-down has a selection called “Options.” Clicking the “Privacy” tab allows users to set blanket bans on cookies or site-specific preferences.
Behavioral targeting is in no way an exercise of the legal monopoly on coercion, much less an oppressive exercise of that power.
Ars Technica, an otherwise excellent tech publication, mangled the same literary reference in this headline: “Big Brother is Watching: Companies Snoop E-mail to Combat Leaks.” Employers monitoring communications on their systems are neither exercising government power nor oppressing their employees.
The most cogent, if not the kindest, explanation of this came in the comments to a recent blog post by Bruce Shneier (one I disagreed with). There, commenter “ManOnBlog” said:
You check your constitutional rights at the door when you go to work. They can tap your phone, read your email, paw through your computer, open your locker, etc. The list of what they can’t do legally is shorter than what they can do.
Commenter “@ ManOnBlog” replied:
> You check your constitutional rights at the door when you go to work.
No, you don’t.
> They can tap your phone
No, they can’t. They can tap *their* phone, which you use.
> Read your email
No, they can’t. They can read *their* email, which you use in the course of your job (although generally speaking they need to be VERY CAREFUL about this, because although your corporate mail store is indeed company property they have obligations to protect the individual information that is in that mail store if it is your personal info).
> paw through your computer
No, they can’t. They can paw through *their* computer. Again, see the email line above.
> open your locker
The distinction between government and private action is something more people should understand — especially people who write headlines for a living.