Why the NSA's PRISM Program Shouldn't Surprise You
CREDIT: Shutterstock: Minerva Studio
If you're concerned about PRISM, the National Security Agency's program that can spy on U.S. citizens through services like Google and Facebook, just keep in mind the government is simply taking advantage of what the Internet was meant to do.
According to a slideshow leaked from the NSA, PRISM collects massive amounts of data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, with a Dropbox partnership on the way. This gives the government access to private citizens' emails, videos, photos and file transfers, among other things.
Make no mistake: PRISM is worrying for both criminals and law-abiding citizens, and it may even be unconstitutional. On the other hand, the last 20 years or so have represented a steady progression toward complete information sharing and decreasing privacy.
In that light, it's hardly surprising that the government would want to tap into information that the Internet-savvy public has made accessible from almost every modern computer, phone and game console in the world.
As Real Kaplan, a Twitter persona imitating magazine editor Peter Kaplan, pointed out: "You have photos of your kids and your cat and your dinner on Facebook, and you're mad about the NSA knowing too much about your on-line life?"
"Hey," he added, "my wife kids friends and colleagues never read my damn emails, I'm … pleased as punch if Obama does."
While the account is satirical, it brings up a number of good points. You may be outraged on a moral level that the government is able to read your private correspondence (although the odds of it actually doing so are infinitesimally small), but most of what it has access to is information that you already share freely.
You may send a conspiratorial email to a friend about a relationship that's gone sour, but you're just as likely to tweet something passive-aggressive about it. Your photos and videos are probably already up on Instagram and YouTube.
The only information that people generally want to keep quiet is their browser histories, and if you've been involved in illegal activities (like terrorist rings or child pornography), the government can nail you for that anyway under existing local, state and federal laws. [See also: 10 Tips for Staying Safe on Twitter]
In a statement to alleviate concerns about PRISM, James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, claimed that information gleaned through this service "cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States."
Furthermore, Clapper insisted that "Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats."
Clapper called the leak that revealed the PRISM program "reprehensible," adding yet another log to the fire of online outrage: Collecting massive amounts of consumer information without their knowledge is good, but questioning that practice is bad, according to the U.S. government.
The NSA may be wrong in this situation, especially since many of the companies involved have denied involvement. This raises the troubling prospect that individual Internet service providers have been sharing information without the approval — or even knowledge — of supposedly powerful companies like Google, Facebook and Apple.
Even so, PRISM would be a powerless gesture if many Americans were not so open to sharing every facet of their lives via social media and online chat services.
The government already knows your full name, your home address, your phone number, your job, your car, your pets, your guns and even your family and medical history. Just as Americans have embraced an evolving Internet and increased ease of sharing, the NSA has embraced that information as a new avenue of national security.
The problem with PRISM is that it puts two ideas that Americans hold dear at odds with each other: A completely shareable online life, and safety from foreign threats. Even if PRISM disappears, national security agencies will not (and, in the name of homeland security, cannot) ignore the Internet as a source of information.
Be judicious with what you share online. You never know who might be watching.