The Prism Problem

bigbadnsaI gave a couple of presentations over the past two days about the NSA’s surveillance program and the disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. You can download the Powerpoint and watch yesterday’s presentation. In the presentation, I outline what we know about the NSA surveillance operations based on Snowden’s disclosures; describe the tension that always exists among national security, individual privacy, and convenience; and argue that striking an acceptable balance among these competing aims must be one of our top priorities as a citizenry. I also lament that there seems to be so little concern for the details of how our privacy has been sacrificed, as most people have been more concerned with whether to consider Snowden a traitor or a hero than with the nature of the programs he disclosed.

I also explain in the presentation that too much faith has been placed in the notion of immunity through innocence, the idea that, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. This is a fairy tale we tell ourselves to avoid considering the painful prospect that very little of what we say or seek online is beyond the reach of the government. The fact is that we should be very fearful, no matter law-abiding we are. Although we may not be guilty of breaking the law, we may be guilty of having friends or family who are living less-than-perfect lives. If I can be identified as a companion to such people, I may be guilty by association, no matter how unfair that is. Alternatively, I may be guilty of drinking too much from time to time, or stressing out at work too much, or any of a number of “sins” that don’t cross our legal system but may be triggers for other systems and processes. For example, if a health insurance company could gain access to all the data the government is collecting under the auspices of keeping us safe, it could manage its risk better by combing through the data to find the occasional smokers or drinkers or worry worts and charge them higher rates because they are now known to be at greater risk.

That latter example may seem far-fetched, but it is not. I’m a liberal. I fear big business much more than I fear my government. You may be more to the right, and so you loathe the idea of government and believe the free market should let businesses prosper unbridled to advance our economy. However, no matter how eloquent our arguments, we end up debating nothing of importance, because government and business are increasingly one and the same. If you don’t believe me, check out which corporations fund which politicians, investigate their voting records, and try to deny the correlations. It is completely plausible, therefore, that the health care industry could lobby Congress to gain access to all the data the NSA has been collecting, suggesting that they need it to provide better options for their customers, when, in reality, they simply are doing it to increase their investors’ dividends to the detriment of their policy holders. And the politicians, beholden to their donors, will comply.

Immunity through innocence is a myth. We are all “guilty” of something. When all the data are collected and stored and mined and analyzed and reported, there will be nowhere for us imperfect beings to hide. Snowden is a hero in my book for speaking out and acting against this. But you need to figure out what your own book says.


About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

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