The existence of PRISM, a comprehensive electronic surveillance program operated by the U.S. National Security Agency, was revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowdon, a former NSA employee, earlier this month. The revelation has shocked privacy advocates. But most of the righteous outrage expressed in the time since is naive and mistargeted.
Three months after advocates for tech freedom celebrated the issuance of President Obama’s Executive Order on Open Data, the English newspaper the Guardian tore the American establishment a new one, crafting a narrative of an ex-employee of the NSA blowing the whistle on the government’s classified PRISM surveillance program, which had been tracking huge quantities of data from various types of telecommunications in the name of preventing terrorist attacks and otherwise keeping tabs on threats to America.
To the reader who gleans information by scanning headlines or watching TV news, Obama was now as great a threat to personal liberty as Big Brother. Sales of “1984” have spiked.
All of the major email, search engine and social media giants have issued carefully worded categorical denials of having cooperated with, or even known about, PRISM and the NSA’s snooping. The denials are no doubt sincere in a legal sense. However, as Marc Ambinder illustrates, the process for the NSA to monitor Facebook et al. is such that the companies need never know about the surveillance, thereby furnishing them with a deniability alibi and all of their users with a slight case of the creeps.
Will people stop using Facebook? Absolutely not. Their rage is directed not at the compromised privacy they have accepted in exchange for the freedom to post and comment on photos of each others’ children, meals and drunken party pictures, but at the government’s efforts to protect them from terrorists.
The dynamic of outrage is strange and runs in counterintuitive patterns. When the stakes are high, people have no opinion; when the stakes are low, they’re furious. The same person who shrugs noncommittally when outrageously huge CEO salaries are publicized (“It’s determined by market forces.”) will become outraged over petty-larceny stuff like high cable or phone bills (“Those greedy monopolies!”), or other people’s driving habits.
Similarly, people go ballistic when the Guardian and Wall Street Journal publicize a data dump by a disgruntled NSA employee, but seem positively bored when presented with facts about the collection of their personal data by anyone other than government.
Data surveillance carried out by private companies is far more invasive and promiscuously abused than what the NSA is fishing for, without even the pretense of enhancing public safety.
Data surveillance carried out by private companies is far more invasive and promiscuously abused than what the NSA is fishing for, without even the pretense of enhancing public safety. No, we willingly click “accept” on those EULAs and “agree” on all our social media. We’re dimly aware that these transactions, made in their millions every day, involve compromising our selfhood in exchange for “free” access to a music player or a platform on the internet over which I can spew anti-government views. But nobody reads those EULAs. They just click “accept”.
Rationalists will point out that almost anything is more likely to kill you than terrorism: automobiles, airplanes, building fires, being shot, attacked by a shark, struck by lightning, drowned in a bathtub, diabetes, food poisoning, etc. And yet no one particularly adjusts their lives to prevent these things. Perversely, when safety can be shown to be improved by technology, such as replacing automobiles with self-driving cars, speeches about the death of freedom will be made and applauded.
Terrorism, by its nature, doesn’t play by the rules of rationalism. Its objective is to terrify, and can only do so in a surprising context. The ancient fable of the scorpion telling the frog, “It’s in my nature,” as they both drown after the frog believes it has negotiated a peace agreement with the scorpion illustrates the point nicely. If you’re walking down the street and are hit by a car, you can rationalize it as something that was bound to happen eventually, given the odds. You don’t expect to die violently while dancing in a nightclub or running a marathon. That would be terrifying.
We can tightly regulate certain of these dangers, such as the automobile, airline and food industries, and require licenses and permits for gun owners. All of this requires the collection of data by government for the purposes of regulation, and the data is stored in government databases.
Search re-targeting agencies, on the other hand, sell your social media and browsing habits to advertising clients so that you can see an ad for “divorce lawyers” when you yourself haven’t been searching for anything of the kind. Your wife, on the other hand?
David Simon, creator of “The Wire”, has waded in to the debate, shocking his Guardian-reading base slightly with an analysis that tastefully evokes the spectre of Claude Rains’ crooked policeman character in Casablanca (“I am shocked, shocked!, to find that gambling is going on in here!”). Simon says, “Frankly, I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their shit together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication. For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse. We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing.”
The indignation is, at the very least, a healthy if misplaced indication that we live in a democracy. But why is so much pixel-ink spilled over the NSA when scientists are muzzled by an ostensibly democratic Canadian government? The outcry just doesn’t seem to fit.
Simon’s insight jibes with a kind of skepticism to do with the government’s relative degree of competence in dealing with crisis. For the conspiracy theorist, government controls every hidden aspect of life. In reality, not only can they not intercept a fairly unsophisticated attack cooked up on the fly by a pair of brothers, but also handling extreme weather such as Katrina or Sandy appears to be a problem. Unless you’re the type of conspiracy theorist who believes that such crises are frame-ups. In which case, there’s no helping you.
Meanwhile in India, the largest and most pluralistic democracy in the world, a “Central Monitoring System” has been in development since 2009, designed “to help central and state-level enforcement agencies intercept and monitor communications.” In China, a Weibo user named CNKK-Sky joked, “Compared to what we have here, PRISM is nothing!” CNKK-Sky is correct. The Chinese government operates, in an unofficial but widely known capacity, a total surveillance state which not only monitors its citizens, but also actively sabotages the governments, corporations and citizens of any nation it feels like messing with. Neither of these governments has anything like the concept of checks and balances that exists quite robustly in the United States. Where are the outraged commentators over either of these cases? A meeting could be arranged in a small restaurant with all of them. The bloviators vexed about the NSA, on the other hand, could fill virtual stadiums.
For those who really can’t abide the government poking their noses in their business, you might be consoled by the fact that a lot of freedom-loving, government-hating types known as preppers (Google the term if you need to know what it is. It’s too depressing for me to write about these people.) have endorsed the Canadian tech company Hushmail. Hushmail is an excellent company for all kinds of other reasons, and the prepper endorsement shouldn’t diminish their product. But it is a little funny that the preppers evidently don’t trust Google enough to discover that Hushmail will sing like a bird when asked to by the authorities.