Obama on Digital Spying: Hey, Companies Do It, Too

'That's How Those Targeted Ads Pop up on Your Computer or Smartphone'

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In a much-anticipated speech, President Barack Obama this morning took to the podium to introduce changes he aims to make to the National Security Agency's surveillance operations. Many expected the president to balance proposed reforms with an explanation of why some types of surveillance is still necessary to protect the country. Those in the business community, however, may have been suprised that the president took a moment to remind Americans that spying isn't just a government practice.

Corporate Data Tracking and Ad Targeting

Many in the marketing and data industries have dismissed the concept that the government's data harvesting program bears resemblance to the collection and analysis of data for marketing purposes. However, amid headlines regarding a massive data breach at Target, increased awareness among consumers of tracking, and heightened privacy concerns, the distinctions are blurring.

Congress also has increased scrutiny of consumer data brokers, and legislators have proposed laws giving people more control over how their location data is tracked via their mobile devices.

Here's what the President said about corporate data tracking:

"Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes; that's how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone."

The NSA's Kids Are on Facebook, Too

As part of his balancing act, the president also attempted to humanize NSA staffers, name-dropping Facebook and Instagram in the process:

"After all, the folks at NSA and other intelligence agencies are our neighbors and our friends. They have electronic bank and medical records like everyone else. They have kids on Facebook and Instagram, and they know, more than most of us, the vulnerabilities to privacy that exist in a world where transactions are recorded; emails and text messages are stored; and even our movements can be tracked through the GPS on our phones."

A Corporate Data Partner?

In detailing several changes he'd like to make to the NSA's surveillance practices, he suggested that bulk data on phone calls be stored outside government walls, either by the phone companies themselves or by a single third-party entity. "This will not be simple," he said, as both options pose problems.

"Relying solely on the records of multiple providers, for example, could require companies to alter their procedures in ways that raise new privacy concerns. On the other hand, any third party maintaining a single, consolidated data-base would be carrying out what is essentially a government function with more expense, more legal ambiguity, and a doubtful impact on public confidence that their privacy is being protected."

Read the full transcript of the President's speech here.
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