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What Mr. Zuckerberg and the CIA Have in Common

Facebook’s problems now dominating the news are likely to continue for quite a while. I am reminded of a situation a couple years ago when the CIA was in trouble for having acquired people’s personal information and using it for a variety of purposes without permission or people’s knowledge. During the controversy, I was invited to give a brief lecture at a symposium of communications officers from America’s nearly 20 security and intelligence agencies. This meeting was so well protected that my cell phone was in safe in a building a block away as were some other items in my briefcase which apparently could contain broadcasting equipment.

The question of the day was, “Why was America so mad that the CIA for simply using their information people gave away everyday to anyone who asked: gas stations, hardware stores, vendors and companies of all kinds.” I was prepared for this question but still somewhat incredulous that this group of nearly 100 seasoned professional communicators and their supervisors would be mystified. The answer that I gave was pretty simple, “You never asked their permission.” I mentioned that, “If they has asked their mother about the propriety of what they did, they probably would have gotten a slap on the head.” They were stunned. Their rationale was since almost every American freely gives away personal information about themselves every day, why would they have a problem the CIA taking and using the information assuming it was OK? Grownups can make the silliest excuses to self-forgive. Not this time.

In Facebook’s case, here again, people willingly gave their information to Facebook but had no idea that the Facebook concept was built on a notion that the information given was mined, refined, and resold. Those allowed to buy it were never questioned about their intentions.

The operative concept here is that while speech is protected in our Constitution, privacy is not. Privacy has been artfully inferred by custom and court decisions. The reality of our constitution is that it is predominantly designed to facilitate commercial activity. It may come as a surprise, but the Constitution is also not a moral document. It contains no religious or moralistic thoughts or phrases. As our revolution dragged on, both the American and British governments became far more concerned about commerce trade than some of the issues we’re facing today, most notably, the absence of privacy and protection.

Turns out that the business models for today’s big businesses, including Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart, depend on harvesting and re-tasking our personal information as well as selling this information for the personal gain of others. The lesson of the CIA and Mark Zuckerberg for all of us is that our most personal information, important data, naively given, will present some powerfully frightening times ahead for our democracy and for each of us personally.

By: James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus, America’s Crisis Guru

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