Where I Am A Few Weeks Later

I didn’t have an immediate reaction to the NSA story, in fact I picked it up a couple of days late.

Some of my friends have reacted with anger, and some have already created a resistance movement. Those who are outraged by the fact that the NSA has been tracking our every internet move believe you should be angry too. It’s unacceptable to be agnostic on this issue, to have the “meh” reaction so many of us have had. “I’m not doing anything wrong so why should I worry” or “I always assumed this was happening anyway.”

For me this hasn’t been a story it has been quite so easy to get outraged about. There’s a couple of things I’ve been thinking about the last few weeks, some assumptions I’ve been challenging while I try to figure out how to feel and what to do.

For starters I have always assumed the job of President is harder than anyone but the men who hold that job can know. We’ve seen it too often where a candidate makes promises for transparency, or specific actions to change some policy the public doesn’t like, and when the candidate gets into the office it doesn’t happen. We can assume that all politicians are disingenuous, and I believe many of us do, but I also think that they get a wake up call to the world as it really is when they sit in the Oval Office. There are realities of this world that the government, the intelligence community and the military do not want us to know, because they don’t want us to be cowering under our desks in fear in every day.

There has been some effort by Congress and the intelligence community to show us some of this reality, to show us all of the plots that PRISM has stopped. But we are still not convinced. After all, no matter how much data this thing was gathering it did nothing to stop the Boston marathon bombing, or any one of a number of gun related tragedies in the past year. To me this is not that surprising. The undertaking that PRISM is attempting is big data in it’s biggest sense (I had to look up what a zettabyte even was). Most predictive software (from Netflix recommendations or Google searches) requires a lot of data, time, and specificity. Predicting a terrorist plot is not a simple of an algorithm as predicting which movie you might like. Of course PRISM doesn’t always work.

I know it’s an idealistic assumption to believe that the government and the intelligence community always has our best interests in mind, and I don’t really believe that. At best I might believe that the average behavior of individuals in the NSA and contractors like Snowden is positive, that some can and will abuse their power, while others will only seek the public good, and that the good tends to outweigh the bad.

The other assumption I’ve been challenging is the one from the “meh” reaction. We already allow ourselves to be tracked on the internet by social networks, by online retailers and by search engines. Google’s been storing all my e-mail for the past 4-5 years (and I know that delete doesn’t really mean delete). I hope they won’t read it, but I know they could. Future employers look at our facebook pages, and all other vestiges of our online presence to get a sense of whether we’re a good employee, or one who likes to party every night. There are lots of justifications for why Google and Facebook tracking us is okay, and why the NSA thing is so much worse, but I don’t think we should kid ourselves.

But just because we are tracked doesn’t mean we should just give up. While I do think it is important to maintain a certain brand image on the internet, to control as much of what you are saying and what others say about you as we can, we equally need to be able to say whatever we want. The approach I take to this problem is technological, and in some future posts I’ll talk about private web-browsing and encrypted e-mail. To me that’s what you can do right now to protect your privacy. We can challenge the government, demand transparency and change, and we should but I have a feeling if we cut one head off this hydra, another will rise up to take its place.

So a word of advice in place of a conclusion. Check out the Tor Browser. And maybe try EnigMail. Help those who fight to keep your data private, and have been doing so long before you knew about PRISM. And reflect as well as take action. The battle for the privacy of our data has been going on a long time, and we’ve generally been surrendering without a fight.

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2 Comments

Filed under Trube On Tech

2 responses to “Where I Am A Few Weeks Later

  1. I can certainly understand why many people aren’t outraged, because I myself have reacted without anger to a lot of anger-worthy things in the past. Different people have different reactions to things, and that’s understandable, but the facts are what they are.

    “For starters I have always assumed the job of President is harder than anyone but the men who hold that job can know.” I completely agree with this as well. I can’t imagine the burden President Obama bears, and I’m sure the threats are more complicated than I know. I don’t assume he (or most other politicians, of either party) are acting in bad faith.

    My problem with the call database and PRISM isn’t that they’re not working. They are. We are, in fact, extremely well-protected from terrorist attacks. My problem is that we’re giving up our basic civil liberties for the privilege. The call database metadata includes geographical location, which means that every time you send a call or text, you’re effectively activating a GPS tracking device to tell the government precisely where you are. That isn’t paranoia; that’s what the government has actually admitted. Perhaps that doesn’t bother you, but it bothers me.

    Companies like Google and Facebook raise other privacy concerns, it’s true, but those are of a very different order. Google doesn’t have the power to arrest me. Google doesn’t have the world’s largest military at its command. And my relationship with Google isn’t governed by the Bill of Rights.

    Technological solutions are good, but they only take you so far. The vast majority of American citizens will never have the technical knowledge to use these solutions, no matter how simple they seem to you. And if they need to use them, then the system is already broken.

    • I am disturbed by the amount of data that can be tracked and logged. I don’t keep a cell phone on my person for a variety of reasons (largely because I don’t like them) nor do I have a GPS, but at the same time I know I can be tracked on any computer I use (and the tablets I do carry with me at all times probably talk back to their masters even with the WiFi off). I think you need a multi-pronged approach and I do think the general public should become more aware of technological ways they can protect themselves, be it from tyrannical government or overreaching companies.

      You’re right that the government has the authority to arrest you (or worse) and that is disturbing. But there is a momentum to projects like these. There’s a reason President Obama didn’t order the NSA to stop this project when he took office. If this particular project PRISM is shut down, you can be sure another will rise to take its place. It may be with the best of intentions, and I want to believe that the people who join the intelligence community have good intentions, but it will happen nonetheless.

      Protesting and asking for protecting our civil liberties is a good thing. But in this instance we need to do more than talk. Maybe it’s figuring out the NSA keywords that PRISM looks for and flooding the net with content. Maybe it’s learning to protect our privacy and learn how to browse more securely. Nothing is perfect, but it’s better than nothing, and Tor has advanced a lot in the last few years toward being easy for everyone to use and support.

      I think we’re on roughly the same side here. I do have some faith in government and people who are trying to protect us (in part because I know some of the people who do), but I also feel there is reason to be concerned. The one thing that bothers me is the secrecy even if the reason for it makes sense. PRISM should be able to operate effectively if people know it exists, because you’d still have to know how to get around it’s algorithm, or bypass the things it can track. A general, non-technical knowledge of projects like this is something every citizen should be informed of, so we can debate and decide on the best course of action. That said, not everyone can join the resistance in an active way, and learning to protect your communications on the net has so many other benefits, be it getting around restrictive firewalls or just feeling more secure that you can read reviews of John Oliver’s first week in peace. We all move to adopt technology quickly, but we also need to know how to use it to its full potential, and how its using us.

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