Essays on Technology and Culture

Preventing PRISM 2.0

I’ve spent the last week digesting the news about PRISM, the NSA’s system for spying on pretty much everything we do on the Internet. If you don’t know about it, Wikipedia has a good breakdown of what it’s about. Suffice it to say, the US Government’s domestic security apparatus has a way to see everything we do through Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, and more, with Dropbox “coming soon.” Reaction has been swift, and angry—justifiably so, but the more I think about it, the less worked up I get, and I was never terribly angry to begin with. It’s not that I don’t recognize PRISM as the grave threat to individual liberty and privacy that it is. It’s just another piece of straw thrown on the long broken back of a camel that can no longer care.

In the case of PRISM, it’s more the sense of ineffectiveness of any sort of organized protest against a program that’s already been in place for years. I don’t blame the companies involved for opening up access. When the NSA comes knocking on your door, demanding access to your data, the cost of saying “no” is likely to be worse than the cost of saying “yes”. Ire should be pointed squarely at the government, and I think few people would disagree with this. Only knee-jerk haters of Company X would think otherwise. [1] My only hope is that the sheer quantity of data the NSA is collecting makes real analysis difficult to outright impossible. It made me think of this clip from The Simpsons Movie. [2]

Perhaps the populist backlash will get PRISM dismantled, but that’s only a temporary victory. When the furor dies down, those with something to benefit from collecting our every move will try to do it again. If there’s a way to prevent this in the future, it’s through increased technological literacy. Tomasz Tunguz notes that “28% of Americans don’t use the internet and 32% lack broadband.” When more than a quarter of the population isn’t involved in technology, they’re disincentivezed to care. Even worse is the lack of knowledge that our elected officials have of technology. According to an article on Slate “The 111th Congress, which took office in 2009, was the oldest in U.S. history, with an average age of 57 in the House and 63 in the Senate. (The sitting 112th Congress is only slightly younger.)” The technological disconnect was only too well illustrated by John McCain asking Tim Cook why he had to update apps on his iPhone.

Without being involved and developing an understanding of the increasingly connected world we live in, both average citizens and politicians alike are in danger of being dominated by far more aware technocrats with sinister plans. It’s one thing to say the NSA can see what’s on some random person’s “Dropbox”. It’s a very different thing to let the NSA get access to your own personal files. Spying of this nature is never limited to just the textbook definition of “bad guys”. Ex post facto justification of PRISM could come from using it to bust anyone for the cause du jour. If terrorism doesn’t work out, the NSA could bust someone for piracy because they have an illegally downloaded MP3 on their Dropbox account. We need to nip this in the bud, have public accountability, and the knowledge to understand where the eyes of the government belong.

Perhaps I care more than I thought I did. The question remains: what can I actually do about this?

  1. This includes Google. While Google’s also looking at everything we do, they have some slightly more valid reasons for it than “law enforcement.”  ↩

  2. That’s the only version of the clip I could find. Sorry.  ↩