When I first read about the "secret" NSA program documenting everybody's web activity, named "PRISM" (great government codename, btw), I was a bit confused by the extensive and elaborate displays of surprise and outrage by young white people around the web. When the slides first leaked and Snowden was being interviewed, I could only ask: "so what?" But for all of you, I'll break down some points to explain why I feel this way, and why all of you should, too.

first of all, stop reacting

Everybody is just knee-jerk reacting to one dude's leaked slides. Everybody is suddenly a fucking expert. How many of you have actually read the bills that surround this case? How many of you have read the court case files? How many of you have sat down and watched the CSPAN video of senators asking the NSA chief about it? Or the CSPAN video of the FBI director answering questions about it? Did you read the leaked talking points memos about the business records collecting and the internet surveillance? Have you read the actual laws they're citing?

No? You just want to sit back and react to what idiots say on the internet? Get out of my democracy. We need informed citizens, not people who are going to blindly react to news stories without spending a moment thinking about or researching them. We live in an amazing time when anyone can research the validity of these news stories for themselves. You don't need to be a rocket scientist or a Harvard lawyer to understand how this works. You just need an interest. Point your passion at actually solving the problem, or at least figuring out if there's a problem in the first place. If you're truly offended, do something about it.

the double standard

I work in the Information Technology space. I build shit for the web every day. What the NSA has been doing isn't surprising in the least bit. It isn't news, and shouldn't be. Every medium- to large-scale internet provider already does this for quality control and bandwidth throttling purposes. Google actively scans everything you do using any Google product and uses it to target advertisements at you. Why is it suddenly a problem when the government does it? I would rather have the government do it than uncontrollable, unaccountable, no-say-in-my-data corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They're actively exploiting your online activity right now and you don't give a shit.

This kind of double standard is absolute bullshit. Get mad at Google, not at the government. We elected people who said "okay" to all of this NSA crap. We can elect new people who will say "no" to it, if we really want to. There are fucking miles of red tape surrounding the actual use of any data that the government collects -- whereas absolutely no such bureaucracy exists inside a corporation like Facebook. Sure, there's a privacy policy, and they follow it, but there's no guaranteeing they won't change that policy tomorrow. In fact, they've changed it fairly often.

privacy is not a right; this is all legal

Absolutely nothing about privacy is written into either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. People are screaming "4th amendment protection" at this NSA stuff, but understand that the 4th Amendment (maybe you should read it) is about searches and seizures and arrests, not privacy. Privacy, as we understand it today in the legal sense, is defined by a "reasonable expectation" -- that is, it's a shifting cultural norm that cannot be concretely defined. There is no blanket guarantee of privacy anywhere in our laws except for specific things like our medical history and financial information. But that doesn't mean the government can do whatever it wants -- in order to incriminate you with data that falls within that "reasonable expectation of privacy", they must have probable cause and a search warrant. So while it's illegal to accuse you of something without a court order, it's not really illegal to view/collect your data. As I pointed out in the last section, corporations do it all the time.

By the way, nobody is actually reading what you do online. Nobody cares about how much porn you're watching. I'll tell you exactly how it works: there's an automated process on a cluster of servers that scans everything on the internet for keywords, suspicious activity, et cetera. It's an algorithm. When it finds something, it flags it, and it stores it in a giant data warehouse that nobody actually accesses. The government has thousands of analysts (contractors or otherwise) who can sift through the metadata when there's an investigation going on. There is nothing crazy or illegal about this. They've been doing it with phone records since forever. Anything that becomes trackable in an automated fashion will be tracked. Because why not? It's relatively cheap and extremely easy, and it's very useful when trying to figure out possible terrorist threats.

Yes, it's totally true that some asshole can go into this data warehouse and start tapping into anybody's data. But that's fucking illegal for them to do. But remember this: any administrator at your internet service provider can look at the stream of data going through your internet connection and see what you're doing, capture all of your data, etc. But again, that's fucking illegal for them to do. Also, remember this: any administrator at Google or Facebook can look at the stream of your searches, your Likes, your anything, and that is not illegal because they own the system you're using. There is no weird room full of a thousand people at the NSA reading everything you do on the web. That's fucking crazy.

yes, metadata is damning

As I've written about in the past, the metadata that surrounds us online is often more damning than the contents of our messages. That's not news. What's frustrating is that we only care about these facts when it feels inconvenient. We won't actually do anything about it, but we feel entitled to complain about it.

Legally, your metadata online is treated like your phone records. Both the government and your phone company know who you call, how long the call was, and where you called from. That's not a violation of privacy -- is it? They don't listen to your call. Likewise, the government and Facebook know who you message, what pages you visit, how long you spend on those pages, where you were when you accessed that page or sent that message. That's not a violation of privacy -- is it? They don't read your messages, but if they're public on someone's wall, then there's no violation of privacy there, either. The government reads and collects every single public tweet ever made, because they're public!

What we need to tackle in this century, if we really care, is redefining that "reasonable expectation of privacy". What we need to do is understand how the systems we use every day actually work, and determine for ourselves whether they're worth the tradeoffs in privacy and security. It's very, very difficult to argue that what you post on your public Twitter feed shouldn't be cataloged by the government. That'd be like saying the things you shout to the world on the street corner are private. They're not.

a simple analogy

Imagine if the government could make an exact duplicate of every package being shipped around the world. At every FedEx, UPS, whatever, shipping collection center, the government has a simple scanner that magically zaps your package and makes a duplicate of it. They don't open it or anything -- it's an exact duplicate, atom-for-atom, and it doesn't affect anything, there's no traces of the duplication process. They then take that duplicate and store it in a secure facility where they keep every single package. They don't do anything with it, they just drop it off there, where a robot catalogs its existence, who it was sent by, where it was going, and then it puts that package somewhere.

Suddenly somebody blows up a package somewhere, killing a bunch of people. You know what the government can then do? Find that same package in their huge warehouse, look up who sent it, where it was going, blah blah blah, to help the ongoing investigation. How crazy useful is that? Is it violating anybody's privacy? Is the possibility that someone could break in and open some packages enough to make it wrong? Is the fact that we can do such a thing enough to make it worth doing? Because that's the real question here. Is it a violation of privacy to duplicate data, not open it, but just have it? Is that outside of our reasonable expectation of privacy? Is it worth it to just let this happen, because maybe it'll help something sometime?

When you send a package to someone, there is no magic lock on it to keep it from being open. (You could put a lock on it, though.) Usually there's just some tape. We have an expectation that our package won't be opened until it reaches it's destination, and that's reasonable. But the vast majority of what you do on the internet is sent entirely in the clear with no protective packaging. Imagine if you sent a package to your friend and you shipped it in an entirely see-through box. Do you feel justified in being pissed when the UPS guy looks at it and sees the contents? That's how you're using the internet the majority of the time. There is absolutely no reasonable assertion that your information is private -- because it technically isn't.

Are you upset about these ideas simply because they make you uncomfortable? Do you really think we should have laws in place simply to soothe your discomfort? Do you understand that the reason some assholes ban gay marriage or don't allow women to drive is because it makes them uncomfortable? I'm not saying there shouldn't be a debate -- there certainly needs to be one. However, the reactionary nature of our current discourse is miserable and will only lead to irrational decisions. Mere suspicions of wrongdoing and distrust, whether it's aimed at a citizen or at the government, can never be the sole impulse of inacting sweeping change.

the "surprise" in congress is very telling

Of course a congressperson has to act surprised in the media when they "learn" about this stuff. I'll tell you exactly why they'd be surprised: they don't want to look bad in front of their constituents. Or, more likely, all of this NSA crap was buried in a 2,000-page bill and they didn't fucking read it. So yeah, they're surprised, because they voted on a bill that allowed the NSA to collect this data and they never actually read it before voting YES on it.

That's an actual problem with our government. They vote YES on bills that are thousands of pages long, full of dense double-talk jargon, and nobody reads them. So who the fuck knows what else the government is doing that we'll be "surprised" about next. If someone actually took the time to read every bill that got passed, and extrapolated what could be done given an interpretation of them, I'm sure you could point out how much of an authoritarian surveillance state we're truly living in. Conversely, you could also most likely interpret it as a completely open, protected, self-assured state. But hey, everything's open to interpretation. That's how vague our laws are, and rightly so. That's how our court system works.

A lot of those "surprised" senators didn't even show up at the fucking classified hearing about this. That should be telling enough, if anyone cared.

if you don't like it, here's what you can do

It's really simple.

  1. Vote for somebody who will stop this and/or fight for the reasonable expectation of privacy you believe in. It's that simple. If you do not want the government "spying" on you, send your elected representative a letter explaining what you want. Or vote for somebody else, next time you get a chance. Or better yet, run for office since you're so passionate about this. Take the time to educate yourself on how the internet works and represent the people around you.
  2. Stop using services that actively exploit your data. Understand that when you utilize a free service, like Google or Facebook or Twitter, they are most likely analyzing/tracking/selling your data and your usage. That's why it's a free service. Don't want to stop using Facebook but don't want them to use your data? Too bad. Deal with it. Build your own Facebook, or use an alternative that you can pay for -- and in paying for it, ensure your data is kept private.
  3. Encrypt your own damn data, asshole. If you care about your data, take responsibility for it. There are a million free, easy ways to do this. Use the Tor network, use TrueCrypt to keep your files safe, et cetera. Educate yourself.

I don't want to hear anybody really expecting Facebook and Google to change their ways. They don't have to. They're private enterprises that can do whatever they want -- and as a private citizen, you can fuck off and use a different social network, or stop using them entirely. Don't like that? Do something about it. Stop complaining and start acting.