Through a PRISM, darkly

The furore occasioned by the PRISM surveillance programme which collects phone call logs and Internet communication speaks directly to the confusion at the heart of America’s response to the 9/11 attacks, particularly its willingness to embrace the intrusive provisions of the Patriot Act. In the current debate those defending privacy against an overreaching executive have been criticized for naively insisting that the government fight an intelligence war with one eye closed. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has aired this argument most prominently.

Having professed a deep concern for the preservation of civil liberties, Friedman admits that he can live with PRISM-like surveillance because the prospect of another 9/11 is too grave to be ignored. Another attack “could lead to the end of the open society as we know it” Friedman warns, and he speculates: “If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: ‘Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.’ That is what I fear most.”

In the opposite camp, Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald has observed that the partisan response to the story confirms that “one of the most significant aspects of the Obama legacy has been the transformation of Democrats from pretend-opponents of the Bush War on Terror and National Security State into their biggest proponents.” Refusing to yield an inch to apologists for the “national security state” Greenwald writes: “The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals.”

Much of the debate turns on the value of metadata. David Simon, a veteran crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has compared the NSA programmes to law enforcement surveillance of Baltimore drug gangs in the 1980s. Simon argues that the widespread consternation about the PRISM data collection is really much ado about nothing. “When the government asks for something, it is notable to wonder what they are seeking and for what purpose,” he writes. “When they ask for everything, it is not for specific snooping or violations of civil rights, but rather a data base that is being maintained as an investigative tool.” Simon argues that “this kind of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon bombing before they occur.”

While that is unquestionably so, Simon may be too generous about how much individual privacy survives these blanket surveillance measures, especially given recent advances in data mining. Although the US government is not listening to phone calls or reading actual emails, its capacity for zeroing in on individuals, with nothing more than metadata, has become unusually precise. A recent study of digital privacy found that four data points were enough to permit identification of 95% of the individuals in a crowd. Since the NSA has millions of these data points they have effectively swept aside any reasonable expectation of privacy some time ago. In a recent Guardian editorial Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower, warned that “The difference between what the Bush administration was doing in 2001 right after 9/11, and what the Obama administration is doing today is that the system is now under the cover and colour of law.”

These concerns touch on a wider theme in contemporary American life, the emergence of what the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier calls “creepiness.” According to Lanier this occurs when “information systems undermine individual human agency… when you feel violated because the flow of information disregards your reasonable attempts to control your own information life.” Lanier rightly identifies social media platforms as the source of much of this creepiness since they have effectively created a vast spying network in plain sight.  He warns that “Just making a network open and free is not enough to create a balance of powers. Instead, simple-minded openness is actually an invitation to the cleverest new concentrators of power (Google, Facebook, and now the NSA) to percolate creepiness and inspire justified paranoias.” To this extent the real story in the PRISM disclosures is not that the government is monitoring the online activities of its citizens but how readily, and uncritically the citizenry has offered up vast troves of personal data.

David Simon memorably describes this attitude as “We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing.” He is exactly right. The current debate in the US should prompt greater self-examination about the sharing of personal data in the vast domains of social media, not just in the US but around the world. For it is beyond foolish to serve up so much information about ourselves uncritically only to complain when the government, or a large commercial interest, takes advantage of the data that we have freely supplied.

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