by Pedro Pavon.
Like everyone else in the Universe, I’ve been watching closely as the PRISM story unfolds and information and misinformation is shared all over the place. When the story was leaked on Thursday, I have to admit my first reaction was alarm and shock. Then, as more information was revealed, and theories about how the program possibly works started circulating around the Internet and on television, my initial “shock” was replaced with equal parts confusion and consternation.
First, let me say that I am not completely clear on what PRISM is. There are a million theories out there and a million I-told-you-so’s to match, but still there is no conclusive indication of what the PRISM program (if it is a program) really is and how it works. POTUS defended PRISM a day after its existence was leaked and simultaneously warned that if the public sees the project as going too far, we would have to accept the risks of potentially unbridled terrorist communications. Essentially, he emphasized that PRISM protects us from terrorism and if we get rid of it, we are in increased danger.
Of course, POTUS failed to provide any evidence of PRISM increasing our safety, and we have yet to see any data from him or another government official that verifies this claim. I know that type of information is “classified,” but that’s part of the problem here, isn’t it? With a program as controversial as this, you have to give the public something other than “we need this” in order to convince us that giving up the liberties that PRISM takes away is worth it. I have my doubts about PRISM’s value and success in catching bad guys, as opposed to the old-fashioned way, but for now, let’s move on.
So, what is PRISM? Who knows. If you listen to Edward Snowden, the PRISM whistleblower who is now in Hong Kong, he characterizes the NSA’s ability to access every conversation as “an irrevocable net” capable of monitoring and saving every single digital conversation in real time. Without really knowing what it is and how it works, some people are writing PRISM off as no big deal or are saying things like, “now we know what we suspected all along,” which is almost always followed with “if you’ve got nothing to hide, then…” Let me pose some questions to illustrate why that second line of thinking is particularly dangerous and misplaced. If you thought your mother was listening or reading every one of your emails, would you change something you said or wrote? If you thought your spouse was reading all of your emails or Google searches, would you change some of the things you said or searched for? What if your boss could read every single text message or email you drafted (note I said drafted, not sent)?
Surveillance changes behavior. Teenagers behave differently in front of their parents; employees behave differently when the boss is around and if you see a police officer at the corner of an intersection, you brake a little more carefully and look both ways just to let him know you are a good safe driver. We act differently when under the microscope. We don’t act like ourselves. We become projections seeking approval and avoiding confrontation or conflict. We are not ourselves when we know we are being watched, we act like whom we think the watcher wants to see and will approve of. If you don’t immediately recognize the loss of freedom that comes along with that, quit reading this.
Now you might say that all this surveillance is good, overall; that the net gain is better than the net loss; that surveillance gets people to act and behave in more acceptable ways and society is left the better for it. That may be true in the case of the police officer at the intersection, but I’d bet my supper that if the police officer were standing in your bedroom watching you, you wouldn’t be so nonchalant about it.
So the appropriate question is not whether surveillance is good or bad. There are many ways in which it is very good and many ways it is very bad. The proper question is how much surveillance is too much and just how much of our private lives should we be openly disclosing to the government and the corporate world. That, my friends, is a legal inquiry, which will have to be hashed out, one way or the other.
The first step to any honest review of the legal and ethical standing of a program like PRISM, is to determine whether it is legal in the first place. I think the answer to this will turn on whether the Supreme Court is willing to evaluate the constitutionality of the surveillance piece of the USA Patriot Act without allowing its analysis to be infected with terrorist hysteria or political sensationalism. If they do so, the USA Patriot Act is probably in trouble. The second step will be for the public to voice its concern or approval of such surveillance programs. If the public outcry is on a large enough scale, politicians will respond accordingly—they always do. This leads me to the final step: political action. There are elected officials at every level of government from both parties who are concerned about widespread and pervasive government and corporate surveillance—whether they say it publicly or not. In fact, in many ways, political careers rely on privacy to succeed and politicians know it. Can you imagine how many political campaigns would be derailed by revealing just one email from, let’s say, a candidate to his doctor or between a candidate and his lawyer? Let’s also look at the IRS scandal. If the IRS had the capability of accessing the information PRISM allegedly collects from the organizations it was improperly singling out for scrutiny, the possible abuses become too many to count. And it goes on and on. The stakes for politicians are in some ways greater than those for normal citizens but the stakes are high all around.
I, for one, am in a wait-and-see kind of mode. I want to see how the narrative about this type of government activity develops. I want to see how it affects the corporate world and business. Two of the biggest companies implicated by the leak, Google and Microsoft, have outright denied any participation in such a program. Soon the dust will settle and the real debate will begin and it will be time for us as a country to once and for all decide whether we want to protect a world that’s worth living in by limiting some of the protections we use or if we want to be goldfish and trade in the adventures and excitement of the wild for the safety and security of a fishbowl.