Are We Becoming Ambivalent About Our Privacy? / Technology / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Edward Snowden changed the complexion of the privacy discussion—but did he really tell us anything we didn’t already know?

Let’s face it, every conspiracy theorist has always suspected the government of eaves dropping, spying, espionage, genetic super soldiers, assassination plots and over-taxation.

So, it doesn’t take Edward Snowden to expose the government’s big brother like behavior that we have always suspected. Sure, he opened up a few eyes, but only with the extent and type of data collection, and the security breach at the National Security Agency—an interesting story about an interesting whistle blower.

Snowden’s story is fascinating and the charter of the National Security Agency even more so, however, we have had this type of covert activity since the dawn of modern society. The digital nature and forced corporate participation of PRISM (Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management) makes the subject of data privacy even more complicated.

With technology giants Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PayTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple having to fill requests for data under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, the programs Snowden revealed are relative to non-US presence of these companies’ services.

No sniffing on our soil—what if you are “friends” with Vladimir Putin?

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So What’s the Big Deal?

Surveys by the Pew Foundation have shown that about 23 percent of individuals that are aware of Snowden’s revelations have changed their behavior in regard to use of social media, email, etc. It’s not a really big number when you think about the implications as we are becoming ambivalent on the subject—the Target breach which was a big deal, the Home Depot breach which was ho-hummed away, the recent OPM hack which exposed 18 million federal workers data—it's tiring.

In general the world is numb to media reports of eavesdropping and security breaches, which is probably not a good place to be. So, what did Edward reveal?

  • PRISM: this probably touches us the most. Companies must comply with NSA requests for data under US law and the question remains, should Google, Apple et al be transparent about how often this occurs and what data is shared. As Snowden suggest, are these companies making it easier for the NSA to access their data as a matter of course?
  • MUSCULAR: Sniffing fiber optic cable with the British Government.
  • Video Games: Another British partnership that monitors certain online video games.
  • XKeystore (XKS): Purportedly unauthorized search of emails, chats and browsing history contained in massive databases.
  • Cell phones: The monitoring of 5 billion records of day to discover cell phone locations around the world—the NSA’s most pervasive program.
  • The budget: $52 billion dollars, seems cheap by US Government standards.
  • RSA backdoor: Probably the most disturbing, the NSA paid RSA to develop any encryption technology with a back door.
  • Online sexual activity: Monitoring of online porn visits to discredit jihadist and terrorist suspects (NSA agents need a little fun too!).

While few of these would ever impact most of us, it is it interesting to consider the potentials of such a technically powerful and relatively uncontrolled agency.

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Obama Jumps on the Band Wagon (Civil Liberties Weigh In)

The Obama administration had taken some mild steps to stem concerns. Largely seen as a political maneuver after the Snowden disclosures, Obama presented a gag order on NSA requests for “American” phone records, and early last year placed restrictions on the collection of this data.

Initially, there was little movement from the Obama White House, but it seemed to follow in as both Parties supported placing controls on the NSA. In contrast to Obama campaign promises in 2008 to fight terrorist activity on all fronts, the bi-partisan effort to move legislation forward (The USA Freedom Act) begins to dismantle the far reaching control of the NSA.

With the inception of the Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks there was clearly a mandate to fight our terrorist war on the information front, but the USA Freedom Act passed the Senate. With expiration of the Patriot Act the USA Freedom Act is intended to continue but reform these security measures.

Obama was supportive of this legislation but was not the engine that pushed it forward. He was a bit of a bystander, taking political credit on its passing.

Industry Denies Collusion with the NSA

Tim Cook in an interview with ABC last year vehemently denied that there were any partnerships with the NSA to allow easy access to Apple’s massive data stores. In fact, CEO Cook suggested greater transparency from the industry as to when the NSA was asking for data. 

Recently, Cook took a shot over the bow of Google suggesting that many in Silicon Valley were lulling customers into a sense of complacency about their privacy and use personal data. So, is he just posturing for public support, or is Cook really passionate about protecting Apple’s customer base? 

Conspiracy theories aside, it’s really a he-said-she-said type of argument, with Snowden insistent that there is collusion, but with no real evidence that the NSA “partnered” with any of these nine technology juggernauts. What was true 2 years ago could be fading away and we might see the technology industry tighten up its stewardship of personal data, a good thing, but maybe with some unintended side effects.

Two Sides to This Story

Snowden’s revelations were eye opening, but not unexpected. When we think about personal data it is hard to imagine that it could be used against us in any way. There is clearly a risk in muting the NSAs monitoring abilities, as there is much to be gleaned about criminal and terrorist activity that is critical for the protection of our Nation.

However, there is also a risk that data collection could be abused, taken out of context and used against our personal freedoms in a very scary, Orwellian way.

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