Whose prying is more worrisome — NSA or Facebook?

 (AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

“You have zero privacy. Get over it.”

That’s not me talking. That was Scott McNealy, chief executive of Sun Microsystems, speaking in 1999.

In Silicon Valley, the attitude has changed little since. When the Mark Zuckerbergs wax lyrical about “transparency,” this is what they really mean:

“We will invent digital products that will seduce you into telling us tons about yourself, including things you don’t tell your mom or your spouse.”

Then we will sell that information to people who want to sell you stuff.

That’s why the ads you see on your Facebook page are different from the ones I would see on mine, if I ever went to it.

That’s why when I type some words into my search bar, Google returns a different first page of results than it will for someone else whose search history indicates different interests.

And that’s why I find an Alice in Wonderland quality, a quaint illogic, to the uproar over revelations about the National Security Agency’s Prism program.

Now, I’m certainly disturbed about what’s recently been revealed about how the government is mining data about American citizens that was collected by digital and telecom companies.

I understand the need to be proactive in sniffing out potential terrorist attacks, but the unchecked, black-box character of this digital surveillance bothered me when it began under George W. Bush, and still does now that it continues under Barack Obama.

But what I can’t figure out is this: Why do some folks find it OK when private companies accumulate all this personal data about them, but it’s an outrage to be shouted to the heavens if the government gets a peek?

In Silicon Valley, which has a libertarian bent, the take seems to be: When we spy on you, it’s innovation. When the government does, it’s oppression.

But here’s my quandary: Government’s goal here at least touches on its core mission — to protect you and me from violence. The companies’ goal, no matter how they dress it up with rhetoric about innovation and empowerment, is just old-fashioned commerce. They’re out to make a buck.

I get that the government has unique power to tax me and limit my liberty. But at least I get a say in how my government runs. The digital corporations also have power, and I have no control over how they behave.

So why, when they invade my privacy, is it seen as OK, the price of progress? But if the government sees the same data, it’s the end of freedom.

This mindset of many Americans confuses me.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.