Why do we trust big tech with location data, but not government?

The other day I went to a children’s community theater in Davis County to see my granddaughter perform in a play.

When I got home I noticed I had a notification on my Google Pixel phone that said: “How was Spotlight Children’s Theater? Help others know what to expect.” Google was asking me to rate the experience.

The tickets were given to me, so the only way my phone knew I was at the children’s theater was because Google was tracking where I drove and what establishments I entered.

It is common, of course, for Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc., to track what we’re doing, what we’re purchasing, how much we’re spending, what websites we’re visiting, and myriad other details of our lives, including personal information we post on social media. Whenever I do a search for a tool or some other product, advertisements about those products follow me around the Internet for several days.

And these gigantic technology companies aren’t tracking everywhere we go and every keystroke we make for the fun of it. They’re tracking us to get us to spend more, to sell us more of their goods and services, to put more information in front of us (some of it fake), and to entice us to do what they want us to do. They compile all the data, crunch it using algorithms and artificial intelligence, and deduce even more about us. Political organizations use massive big data to identify us and convince us how to vote.

A few people are smart enough technologically, or are privacy freaks, and they figure out how to prevent these companies from stalking us. But by far most of us simply allow it to happen, not worrying about it.

So here’s my question: Why do we trust these gigantic companies, with their massive server farms storing trillions of bits of data, with our locations, our driving habits, our spending history, our personal information we post on social media, and all sorts of other data, but we don’t trust government to hold some of the same information?

Lots of people are nonchalant about the incredible amounts of data held about us by private companies, but they freak out about government collecting certain kinds of data. (Reality is, government already has lots of data about me and you, including financial information, voting habits, medical information, employment history, licenses and vehicle purchases etc.)

Personally, I have more faith in my local and state governments that are operated by elected officials that I can kick out of office than I do these enormous multi-national companies. I believe governments, for the most part, are trying to do things that benefit me. I’m not so sure about Facebook or Google.   

Here’s why this is relevant. Some of the future services that government will provide, especially related to transportation, are going to require government maintaining location and tracking data, among other things.

For example, we’re on the verge of dramatic transportation innovations that will require collection of travel data. At some point in the reasonably near future, highway construction and maintenance will have to be funded by a road user charge, rather than by fuel taxes. It will actually be a much fairer way to charge for using the highways, but the government taxing entities will have to know how far we have driven and on what highways. It won’t work, otherwise.

In addition, for the connected and autonomous vehicle revolution to occur, our vehicles will have to communicate with myriad sensors, monitoring systems, and highway traffic management centers. Travel will become much safer and easier, but collection of data will be required.

Many details remain to be worked out, of course. Some of the data collected from connected, driverless vehicles will be anonymized, so the highway department won’t know what vehicle is being driven, or who owns it. Data from one vehicle will interact with other vehicles, roadside signage, traffic signals, infrastructure, traffic management systems, satellites, etc. The data will just say, for example, that a vehicle is in a certain location and a sensor may turn a red light green if there is no cross traffic. 

And much of the data will not be stored for very long but will be deleted. Law enforcement and insurance companies won’t have access to much of the data.

The exception is that tax entities will have to keep track of individual vehicles to asses a road user charge instead of a gas tax. That bothers a lot of people.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with government maintaining this kind of data, especially with a lot of safeguards that will be built in. I look forward to road usage charges, instead of gas taxes. I look forward to intelligent vehicles interacting with intelligent highways to prevent accidents and congestion.

I look forward to taking a nap or writing a column while my car drives me to my destination.

I trust government with this data more than I trust the big social media companies.