Naivety will put you in PRISM

PRISM has recently come out as the latest in a long run of privacy concerns for anyone using the internet today. Plenty of articles out there expressing “outrage” or “displeasure” at both sides of the whistle-blower and privacy concerns with former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann calling Snowden a traitor whilst a Time Magazine poll showed around 60% of young Americans claim he performed a public duty.

On top of this, NSA Director General Keith Alexander states that not only are programs like these completely legal, but have saved lives countless times. The questions that are being asked though, do not seem to me, to be the most pertinent ones.

There is no question that the use of such a secret agreement between large companies with whom we entrust much of our data privacy and our government is illegal and in the case of the US, their favourite buzzword to immediately denounce any idea before we’ve had time to argue about it – ‘unconstitutional.’ However, the problem is moral and as with other cyber issues such as the notion that ICANN; the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, does not maintain legitimacy through lacks of transparency and refusal to sever ties with US government agencies or devolve root authority globally. PRISM, if used correctly, is possibly the single greatest tool used by security services to fight terrorism and crime since CCTV.

The availability and efficiency of such a technology cannot be rivalled and security services holding that power could be very effective, if used correctly. There’s no question that had America suffered an attack even close to that of 2001 and it could have been prevented by something like PRISM, we wouldn’t be questioning it, so long as it was used properly. However, it sadly seems it wasn’t. There have been reports of the US using it for clandestine operations, not just with non-sympathetic US nations, but with the European Union, the United Nations and much of South America.

Secondly, aren’t we naive to think this wasn’t already happening? Who is actually shocked? Are we surprised when firefighters put out a fire or police arrest a drug dealer, so what exactly do people think the NSA and GCHQ does? Granted, it can be construed that PRISM has violated the fourth amendment of the US constitution and there may be some truth in the quote people are throwing around from Benjamin Franklin; “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” However, at what point do we realise that these quotes happened in an age hundreds of years before the invention of the light bulb, and that Franklin’s quote comes almost a year before the US even declared independence, let alone had written up a constitution to even amend a fourth time.

It comes down to trust then. Do we trust the employees? Do we trust the companies? Do we trust the government? There’s no denying that this scandal hasn’t done our faith any good. As a non US citizen, I feel more violated by the companies involved, as most of the talk about how the US has been spying on it’s own citizens, as if the fact it’s using PRISM as to spy on foreign citizens is okay? Pulling data from companies which have explicitly set out to exploit markets other than the US seems to implicate the companies more than the government to me. Why are we going schitz at the US government and the NSA. They’re simply doing their job. If you ask facebook to supply the name, phone number and last 5 years worth of message records and they comply, isn’t it the fault of Facebook for not questioning it? Even if they are legally compelled to comply and maintain silence, Snowden himself says this is an ethical obligation, not a legal one. “If [they] refused to provide this cooperation with the Intelligence Community what do you think the government would do? Shut them down?”

Handing over data is simply easier, avoids a costly government lawsuit, and provides compensation. The incentive provided by the government is evident, but should that overrule ethics? As an analyst only has to be legally 51% sure their target is foreign in order to request their data, it doesn’t fill me with confidence that it’s being used responsibly. After all, how do you measure surety? As Brian Barrett, managing editor of Gizmodo puts it, “It’s easy enough to follow the letter of the law when you’re the one writing it.”