Much has been revealed over the past six or seven days on the subject of government spying, specifically extensive government access to private data, and the sheer ridiculousness (and illegality) of said access.
I’m of course talking about PRISM, the apparently congressionally-authorized top-secret domestic data surveillance operation the NSA has been running for at least the past half decade that was recently leaked by Edward Snowden.
This program and others backed in part by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, have forced compliance of some of the biggest and most commonly used tech and communication companies on the planet.
Personally, I’m crushed. Crushed not just as a user of technology from companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, or a user of even computer technology in general, but as an American.
This isn’t supposed to happen to us. We’re supposed to be the good guys. This is something that we’ve been led to believe is only plausible (or even possible) in far-off authoritarian nations like former Soviet Russia, present day China, or a handful dictatorships in the Middle East and South America.
Our government is not perfect, we’ve always known this. Its foreign policy is a mess, the military industrial complex grows larger as the decades press on, and our economy is between dismal and stagnant depending on who you ask. However the one thing that’s always kept us Americans feeling proud of our country and to actually be Americans was the notion that our government still had some shred of integrity where respecting our laws and personal freedoms were concerned.
That last shred is now gone.
I suppose the writing has been on the wall for a while. The enactment — and renewal — of the Patriot act, the constant barrage of proposals for censorship legislation under the guise of protection like SOPA and PIPA, dangerous precedents set by court decisions and perhaps most obviously the gigantic datacenter the NSA built in Utah, have all chipped away at the veneer of our “rights” as Americans.
However I don’t think I’ve personally seen a previous example where our government has so eggregiously stepped outside of its role as “protector of American interests” and engaged in activities that could only be used for oppression and censorship.
We have and will continue to see shill opinion pieces by domestic media outlets about how PRISM is strictly an anti-terrorism program, and much of America will probably buy it. There will be a smear campaign about how Edward Snowden is a traitor, a defector, a mere high school dropout and a double agent for the Chinese.
Except he isn’t any of those things. He’s a guy probably not too disimilar from folks like myself who are good at computers, got jobs using them, and started making good money. The difference is while I’m staring at user interface mockups and code all day, he was looking at the government’s dirty laundry.
The things he saw — PRISM, FISC orders, and who knows what else — compelled him to blow the whistle and literally walk away from his family, his live-in girlfriend of four years, sizable paychecks and perhaps most importantly his identity as an American.
I don’t really know where President Obama fits into all of this. Some reports are saying that his daily intelligence briefings contain information facilitated by PRISM more often than not, but we don’t know for sure.
He’s been treading on thin ice lately for a variety of reasons, but he better answer for this. Last week when news broke that the government had gained temporary access to the call records of Verizon customers via court order and later when PRISM was leaked, the President dismissed them as non-issues.
Meanwhile, the tech companies who were forced to participate in PRISM have been releasing statements that flatly deny any knowledge or invovlement. I don’t really expect them to do much else besides try to save face considering they’re not allowed to publicly acknowledge that the classified program exists.
Regardless of what the President, congress, tech companies, or anyone says, the Internet is no longer safe. This may seem like an obvious or johnny-come-lately statement, but in an era where so many of our social interactions are online and so much of our private data is online, we can’t just worry about Nigerian princes trying to give us money or hackers trying to take it. No. We have to worry about the government listening in on everything we do.
Much of our 4th ammendment rights are gone, our 2nd ammendment rights are on their way out, and this road we’re headed down will ultimately lead to our most prized privileges — the rights to free speech, assembly, press, religion, and petition provided by the 1st ammendment — being taken away.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama haven’t been the political despots of the left and right’s nightmares. They have, however, slowly allowed all of the pieces to come into place for such an entity to materialize should the wrong person (or people) be elected in the future.
The worst and most terrifying part about all of this is I have no idea what to do about it.
I can donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and I can donate to the American Civil Liberties Union. Both organizations are committed to putting up a legal fight against the government’s transgressions.
I’ve signed a White House petition to pardon Snowden, and have probably put a target on my back in the process.
I can join protests both physical and digital, but the notion of me completely removing all of my data and ceasing my participation in all of the online services I currently use would not only be stifling to my personal and professional lives, but practically impossible.
I could put on an tinfoil hat and leave my iPhone in airplane mode to prevent myself from being tracked in the future unless I needed to make a call or check my email, but then the government is probably be monitoring both of those protocols.
I could encrypt all of my documents currently on Google Drive and Dropbox and store them locally or trust the encryption to a site like Mega, whose founder Kim Dotcom is already under wrongful investigation by the FBI. He’s rightfully stating that privacy is going to be one of the biggest trends going forward, and is promoting encrypted email among other things. However even then, the government could still technically spy on me in the future via my Xbox or refridgerator apparently.
One thing I could definitely do is vote against every congressional incumbent in the next election. However there is no guarantee the newcomers would be any better. Some folks in congress are trying to fight these programs, but many seem okay with them. This situation seems ripe for a supreme court showdown, however I’m not so sure I have faith in them to make the right call.
Hollywood has always romanticized government spies protecting us from scary specters hiding in the shadows. However when faced with the reality that the government is actually turning those once hypothetical tools on the American people, it’s downright terrifying.