In an interview with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s surreptitious data mining program which made use of phone records for every phone number on the Verizon network, among others.
In the aftermath of a revelation of that magnitude, a natural debate has ignited over privacy and national security. A quick look at social media shows an expected outcry over the government’s use of personal information — allegations of invasion of privacy and the like.
Much of the discussion gets bogged down over Snowden himself — whether he’s a hero or traitor, why he chose to flee to China, and whether he provided information to that prospering but still totalitarian nation. People on both sides of the issue are arguing over whether he was lying when he said he had the authority to wiretap anyone. Others with political objectives are calling him a defector, all in an effort to distract.
A more fundamental question remains. Why do certain political groups with predictable reactions to a scandal such as this think it’s OK for private industry to spy on Americans for the sake of making money, but it’s not OK for the government to spy on Americans to keep us safe? I actually heard this argument on a local talk radio station not long ago. A local right-wing host expressed his opinion that it would be OK for a local business owner to put surveillance cameras on his building due to crime in the neighborhood, but that it would be unacceptable for the police department to get permission to mount those cameras in the same location. The host’s only beef was who operates the cameras — the private business versus the government. Unless I’m a member of the “Leave Me Alone” parties — tea party, libertarians — why should I feel any safer that a private business has my information than I would if the government has it?
For those who are web savvy and use the Internet on a daily basis, privacy is an illusion. Every day when we logon, we’re granting invasive access to every aspect of our personal lives and communications. It’s not a coincidence that you see a Russell Stover ad in your browser the day after you sent an email to your friend about how much you love chocolate. It’s no coincidence that you posted something about a Stephen King book on your Facebook wall and an hour later, an ad for “Under the Dome” appeared on your page.
Google is reading your email. Facebook is keeping track of you. All that data is banked somewhere. And stories about data theft are in the news every day. People have access to your information. LOTS of people. Corporations. Many of them stole your information. You never gave them permission.
Mark Zuckerberg was roundly criticized when in 2010 it was reported he said “the age of privacy is over.” As the CEO of Facebook it would have been imprudent of him to say. It would have made it appear as though the head of the world’s largest social network didn’t care about your privacy. The problem is, he didn’t say it. But if he had, he would have been telling the truth. The age of privacy is over.
Astute political observers might say, “Yes, but I gave Gmail my permission when I pretended to read the user agreement and checked the little box when I signed up for my account.” They would be right. However it would also be true to say that a fraction of Gmail users actually understand and recognize that Google is reading every word of their emails. Some probably didn’t give it much thought until they saw it in print a couple paragraphs back. You don’t have to grant your permission every time, you did it once when you signed up, and that’s it. As long as you use Gmail, they can access your information. It will always be on that server, and it will always be at risk for theft by some hacker. If you don’t use Gmail, how about Hotmail? LinkedIn. Yahoo. Twitter. MSN. Digg? Stumbleupon? Pinterest. Instagram. And a thousand more. If you don’t use any of this, you’re in a shrinking minority. And even if you don’t, it doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for caring about our privacy as citizens. All of these organizations use our information for a profit, with minimal permission, in ways we would object to if we paid attention.
This situation with the NSA is the same. Except instead of granting your permission by checking a box when you signed up for an email or social media account, you granted your permission when you voted, if you voted. A bipartisan majority of congressional lawmakers were briefed and voted to continue these eavesdropping programs. If you didn’t vote, it’s the equivalent of not using social media — it doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to have an opinion and take action on our collective and individual privacy as a nation. And before we go accusing Edward Snowden of being a traitor, we need to remember that we wouldn’t know about these invasions of privacy if it weren’t for him.
If we want to prove the age of privacy is not over, it will take a monumental grassroots effort to return this country to an era of privacy through legislation, and we’ll all need to re-evaluate how much importance we put on the ability to post photo albums for family who live across the country and our love for LOLcats in our news feed. Because demanding our privacy in one arena mandates that we value it equally in others.