Friday, June 7, 2013

Closing Your Digital Blinds

Pragmatic Left is hosted on Blogger which is a Google property.  With news breaking today that Google is among the (numerous) participants in a massive NSA data mining and intelligence gathering operation known as PRISM I'd just like to take a moment to give a shout-out to all my readers over at Fort Meade.

But before everyone freaks out about the NSA spying on their Gmail accounts and their Microsoft cloud services I'd like to ask a provocative question: what's the big deal?

Obviously surveillance is a big deal.  We have the 4th Amendment among other legal shields to prevent government from planting bugs in our cars and searching our houses without good cause and wide-spread drag-nets like the one employed in the PRISM program would seem to run afoul of that.  But do they really?  There are privacy concerns here -- of that there can be no doubt -- but they're not born of government overstepping its bounds.

What do we fear when government agents browse our email accounts and datamine our Facebook profiles?  It is not that we fear the exposure of some criminal activity or illicit dealings; were that the case our objection could be easily set aside with the old saw "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear."  We fear not exposure of the criminal but exposure of the private.  Those faceless suits in the intelligence community who pour over our data are flesh-and-blood human beings.  They are subject to temptation just as the rest of us are.  Titillating pictures, details of our private lives, medical and financial records: these are the things we want to keep out of the hands of strangers, be they government employees or otherwise.

Yet we share these on the internet.

Make no mistake.  When you send a beach photo to some friends in Ohio you're entrusting that message, that photo, and the knowledge that you two know each other to nameless and faceless people at Google or Microsoft or Facebook or some other company.  Those companies are also staffed by flesh-and-blood human beings who are also corruptible and temptable.  That their paycheck doesn't come from the US Treasury Department renders them no more virtuous than anyone else.

Just look at the labels on the buttons we click: "Share," "Send," "Upload."  Their very names should dismiss any illusions of privacy.  Should Google or Facebook or Microsoft choose to protect our data that is noble of them, but we would be fools to trust them to do so completely.  Would you post your social security number in a private Facebook message?  Would you leave a credit card number in your Gmail archive?

Privacy on the internet -- privacy you can have confidence in, at any rate -- is not something innate nor something you are given; it is something you create.

PGP, TrueCrypt, and a host of other cryptographic solutions exist to allow internet users to transmit and share data secure in the knowledge that even the NSA's most talented code-breakers would be hard pressed to intercept it.

The Prism program is subject to Congressional and Judicial oversight.  It sunsets rapidly and requires constant legal review to keep it running.  This is exactly as it should be; if your government has a good reason to demand legal records from Verizon or Google then it should demand and receive those records.  This is as uncontroversial as 4th Amendment questions get.

And if you have information that needs protection against both casual and deliberate attempts to acquire it online then you, not Google, not Microsoft, and not Verizon, are responsible for protecting it.

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