Every now and again a story comes along that really makes me want to stand up on my soapbox and rant, and the recently breaking government PRISM scandal is one of those types of stories. First a little bit of background on this story for the uninitiated:
According to a Washington Post article the U.S. government has been secretly tracking American’s online activity through an initiative code named PRISM. The name might sound like something out of a Marvel comic but the organization is very real, and what it does could be potentially terrifying to privacy-concerned citizens. According to leaked documents, the PRISM program has been in effect since 2007, gaining strength and capacity steadily since. Originally intended as a program to monitor foreign communications through US servers but in practice it would seem the scope is far greater.
Under the program, the NSA is granted access to a number of familiar major company’s servers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, Youtube, Apple, if you have interacted with any of these companies over the last 6 years (and who hasn’t) your information is susceptible to government surveillance under PRISM. Now, admittedly, they aren’t likely tracking and monitoring every individual’s activity they actually have stringent guidelines for picking who to monitor. Actually, there is only one guideline, and its not stringent whatsoever. According to the report, an NSA analyst has to have only ”51 percent” certitude that the subject is “foreign”. The loopholes in this system are even bigger than the plot holes in an M. Night Shyamalan movie. And at this lies the root as to why the reaction of the American public to this story has varied along a continuum of terrified to furious.
But what has people most nervous about this is not the simple fact that they are tracking your data online, which is something that happens every day, (If you really want to freak yourself out, download Collusion and browse the internet for a few minutes) rather what are truly troubling about PRISM are the types of data that it collects. According to the article in the Washington Post it will include:
“…audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs… [Skype] can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone, and for any combination of “audio, video, chat, and file transfers” when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.”
And if that isn’t enough to get you squirming a bit, a similar depth of analysis applies to Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and the rest of the bunch. Essentially everything you do online, right up to what you are searching in Google, is up for grabs under this program. Whatsmore, this is all completely legal. Under the Protect America Act of 2007, it is possible to electronically survey targets without a warrant if they were “reasonably believed” to be foreign. Which is where that magical 51% comes from.
This newsbreak once again thrusts the issue of online privacy into the forefront of national discussion. Is this ‘invasion of privacy’ a necessary evil? Perhaps. Intelligence is probably the most vital factor in the prevention of terror, but is it worth feeling like Big Brother is always watching you? Personally I don’t truly believe there is a place for privacy any longer in today’s world, at least not in the traditional sense. People who choose to opt out of maintaining an online personality are almost precluded from today’s modern society. It almost seems like we feel a need to share our lives with one another in order to be a part of a giant shared experience. Facebook and other forms of social media allow us to tap into our innate desires (as much as we don’t like to admit it) to live vicariously through the lives of our ‘friends’, and doing that requires amendments to the traditional definitions of privacy. Slowly over the course of Facebook’s history we have seen people naturally slide into this modified definition of private data, as people grew to share more and more of their lives online. Truth of the matter is that big data is a major part of the underpinnings of the modern economy and isn’t going anywhere soon; this is something that most people have either accepted or simply ignored.
Honestly I see this PRISM story going one of two ways, either it will simply vanish from public consciousness, washed out by the 24-hour news cycle. Or it will blow up, invade our televisions and lives for the next few weeks only to finally end up being not that big of a deal. Honestly this is simply something that the public is probably going to simply have to accept. Currently PRISM is breaking no laws, meaning that it is unlikely that the government will be putting a halt on their $20million a year program. So I guess that leaves us really with the option to accept it and live with it… and maybe think twice before posting that picture of the model rocket you built with your friend Raj.
Ok I’m stepping off the soapbox now, what do you think about the whole PRISM story and online privacy?
UPDATE: As one might have reasonably expected, Internet hacker vigilante group, Anonymous was night silent for long in expressing their displeasure over the NSA/PRISM scandal. They have responded by leaking a number of secret NSA documents, including important stuff like the US Department of Defense’s ‘Strategic Vision’ for controlling the Internet. If you have followed Anonymous’ activities over the years this should come as no surprise. Anonymous is a hacker group synonymous with Internet activism (hacktivism) perhaps most notably recognized for their connection with the Wikileaks scandal and the Occupy movement.
UPDATE 2: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg took to the site to issue the following statement:
“I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM:
Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday.
When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.
We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe. It’s the only way to protect everyone’s civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term.”
Obviously the facts on this story are a little muddy… expect more developments on this soon.