PhotoIf anyone needed to be convinced that the publishing business has been turned inside out, the news that Facebook's security chief quit to take a job with the National Security Agency should do the trick.

Max Kelly left Facebook to join the NSA in 2010 but it remained, well, secret, until The New York Times broke the news today.

Publishing used to be pretty much a one-way business. Writers and editors assembled information from their news sources, slapped it onto newsprint or glossy paper and trucked it over to the Post Office or newsstand. Advertisers who thought their potential customers might read the publication in question paid to insert their ads.

These days, the publisher operates the "platform" and assembles information about its readers -- or "users," as they're now called -- and sells that to advertisers and marketing researchers. Readers supply the content free of charge, giving up information they would never dream of giving to the government. Advertisers pay for access to the data and then pay again to display their ads on the platform. 

Nice work if you can get it.

Huge databases

What's really quite amazing is how much information is being gathered about the hundreds of millions of people who use Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter and so forth. Despite all the uproar about the NSA's Prism program, which tracks phone calls and emails, the program comes nowhere near equalling the huge datasets assembled by private publishers.

The NSA, of course, always knows more than it admits to knowing but Big Data -- the huge databases being constantly updated by the marketers of the world -- puts it to shame, collecting demographic and financial information about Internet users and marrying it to data about our online activities, our online and brick-and-mortar purchases, our travel, the books we read and the movies we watch.

You don't have to have a doctorate in history to know what happens when private companies amass huge troves of information the government doesn't have. That's right -- the government finds a way to sneak a hose into the warehouse and suck out the data.

Not that Max Kelly would be involved in anything like that, of course. Just saying -- a huge dataset is like a loaded gun. Sooner or later somebody is going to use it. Or steal it.

Or as the Times put it: Kelly's move underscores the degree to which Silicon Valley and the NSA are in the same business: "Both hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans."

Who penetrates whom

PhotoBack to our comparison of publishing past and present: In the Watergate era, reporters penetrated government and revealed its secrets to the public. Now publishers penetrate their users, so to speak, and reveal their secrets to marketers and the government.

Now of course, the darlings of Silicon Valley will tell you they don't give much data to the government and deny the NSA has a "back door" to their servers. This is another way in which business and government now resemble each other: No one believes anything they say.

As the Times notes in its story, the NSA and other government agencies have become some of Silicon Valley's biggest customers for data analytics, the software that's used to collate, translate and correlate the enormous datasets government and industry pore over daily.

Government and what used to be called the press have always had back-door arrangements, of course. When I was an Associated Press executive in Washington, certain government agencies would occasionally call to let us know which of our circuits they were monitoring at how many locations so that we could bill them.

No delivery was necessary. They had already intercepted the transmissions.

Similarly, we were once working with a local broadcaster to demonstrate how data could be encrypted in a broadcast signal. But on the day when we were to turn on the data feed for the demonstration, the engineers were perplexed to discover there was already heavily-encrypted data multiplexed into the signal.

No one would admit knowing how it got there or where it came from but the military-style encryption didn't leave much room for doubt about what it was.

Kind of quaint

This kind of clandestine activity seems almost quaint today. After all, it amounted to nothing much more than moving around information that had already been collected; no one was tapping into private citizens' brains to see what they had on their minds.

Wire-tapping and steaming open letters used to be about all the government had at its disposal.  Now, in a digital world, just about everything that doesn't have skin wrapped around it can be detected, collected and accepted.

Even Skype, the seemingly innocuous Internet telephone service, has been part of the Prism operation since 2011, according to the Times article.

What's it all mean? That's up to you but one thing it probably means is that if you're worried about your secrets, you can stop worrying. They've already been stolen.  


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