PRISM on a wider scale: is personal privacy obsolete?

Pluses and minuses of NSA surveillance in a dangerous world. Photo: Flickr

MANILA, — July 12, 2013. A public outcry has been raised over the US National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) project PRISM, an “alleged internal NSA codename for a program involving collection of data from major internet companies done under the auspices of the FISA amendment act.”

Silicon Valley’s vehement denial that its companies allowed the government direct access to their servers without a court order has raised many questions. In a world of constant tweets, location updates, posts and statuses, Internet cookies and the wide availability of different kinds of surveillance cameras capable of being installed anywhere, we’re right to ask: Is privacy still possible to achieve? Is society inching closer and closer to an Orwellian world, with Big Brother watching our every move with our willing and unwilling participation? Was the Fourth Amendment broken by the NSA?

The text of this key amendment—part of the U.S. Bill of Rights—reads as follows:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

While people might generally think otherwise, most of the privacy concerns raised by the use of technology don’t involve worries that this may be exposing individuals’ private transactions. Rather, their primary concern is that the information obtained in this manner may be jeopardizing individuals’ personal security, e.g., credit card information, bio-data, names, e-mails, contacts, addresses, or very sensitive personal data such as medical information.

If the main reason for the public furor over extraction of user data is that people do not want to share their personal information only—information that is most prevalent and accessible with the Internet companies actually involved in the scandal—the whole premise of online social networking will prove invalid.

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In short, people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

People tend to forget that raw data means nothing if there is no methodology to analyze it. To be fair, the NSA does not sit in front of a computer, reading through e-mails one-by-one and occasionally laughing at a humiliating photo. An operation like PRISM may lead to indexing petabytes (1,000 terabytes, or 1,000,000 gigabytes) of data per month. Or more.

To put that number in perspective, Topsy, the company that indexes the whole of Twitter, spends about $6 million a year storing 1,825 terabytes of data. Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! store more substantial amounts of data.

Because analysis of such huge databases would require correspondingly huge resources, NSA is likely employing a process that constantly narrows down this data by using valid keywords and valid algorithms that key in on suspicious online or telephonic behavior. But again, people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

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One must also consider that the groups with legal access to our personal information, either written or stored in a database, are legally bound by Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure Agreements to never disclose that information unless ordered to do so by a court order. Any other way that information might have been obtained was likely done illegally.

The only valid fear that the PRISM scandal has introduced is that if the government has the capability to directly direct access our online information even without informing the company that owns or controls that information, who is to say that the government will not abuse it? That is why, should an innocent ordinary citizen be accused and convicted as a result of his online information; and should that information have been taken illegally and out-of-context, the world may safely say that yes, it wants to keep its information to itself, and no, the government cannot break the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment which the government is sworn to uphold.

After considering all these facts, the only remaining question that needs to be answered is: are people willing to risk, not sacrifice, their privacy for greater security? For example, that surveillance camera they may be worried about might end up helping to solve a crime or terrorist attack some day. The people who can answer “yes” to that question likely have, at worst, an online collection of embarrassing party pictures. The people who might hesitantly answer “no” might have an extra-marital affair or an off-shore bank account to hide. The remainder, however, may very well have something worse hiding up their sleeves.

Perhaps this is the trade-off we must endure to ensure a more open world, and perhaps the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. The best thing that ordinary citizens can do today is be responsible with the information they share online and make sure that the worst online information they have read, created, or posted involves little worse than catty comments and unproven gossip.


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Jona Jone

Jona Miranda Jone brings her expertise to the Communities page as a financial writer who is also an expert on mortgages and other transactions concerning property ownership.  Jona now lives in the Philippines, where she works as a freelance writer.

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