What’s the Big Deal?
For the past month, the name Edward Snowden has been featured on every news source. His leak about Prism and the National Security Agency (NSA) has fueled a national debate over government transparency and where to draw the line between security and privacy. Citizens across the country are outraged over the invasive program. But no matter what news outlet I read or what opinion pops up on my CNN alert, all I can think is “So what? Who cares?”
According to the documents Snowden revealed, the NSA has access to massive amounts of personal data including individual chat logs, stored data, phone calls, file transfers, and social media data. The NSA has access to more than just the metadata of these communications. Metadata is the basics of surveillance. For a phone call, the metadata would include the duration of the call, the numbers it was between, when it took place, and location information. For an email, it would include the sender and the recipient, not the subject or content. Prism’s surveillance now allows the NSA to gain the content of the communication, a feat metadata could not achieve. While this is the basic function of the program, it is unclear as to how much more Prism can do and who exactly it is targeting.
After September 11, American security immediately increased efforts of tracking communication. The U.S. was specifically able to focus on interactions between suspected terrorists and their contacts within the warranted system. Prism has the ability, through data mining, to look for the unknown suspect. If the metadata points to anything concerning, the NSA can focus in on specific communications and gather content.
Recently, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), technology experts and accomplished journalists gathered to discuss data surveillance, Prism, Snowden, and the NSA. Barton Gellman, one of the Washington Post writers who broke the Snowden story, called the capabilities of data collection “creepy.” He stressed that the NSA could virtually find out anything about an individual, including their exact location and what they said on the phone to their mother. Gellman questioned the limit between privacy and civil liberties. While James Lewis, director and senior fellow of the Technology and Public Policy Program at CSIS agreed with Gellman on the abilities of Prism, he disagreed on the tone. Lewis said, “There is potential to gather that type of information, however, the NSA doesn’t care about your sex life. There aren’t enough analysts to go through each person’s information, there’s no reason to.”
As privacy is a civil liberty, Prism calls into question how much of this right American citizens are willing to give up for security. Because Prism looks for the unknown, it looks at everyone. To many, this is a clear breach of citizens’ privacy. I view this as a breach of privacy. But I, unlike many, do not care. So what if the NSA can see everyone’s email and chat logs. Like Lewis said, they do not care about our sex lives. Personal, day to day on goings are of no importance. There are not enough analysts in the world to interpret all the data. When a red flag pops up, that is when the NSA will look deeper into communications. I would rather have the NSA listen in on all my phone calls than have another bombing in Boston. This is not an argument about if the data collection and surveillance is the most effective security measure. In fact, much has been written in the contrary saying that Prism will possibly catch a few amateur terrorist here and there, but those in the big leagues will know how to avoid detection. Maybe Prism is not the best security defense. But I believe that if we are going to risk our soldiers’ lives by sending them to war overseas and justify it as a measure of national security, then the American people need to be okay with the government seeing what information you retweet. In defending U.S. surveillance tactics, President Obama said, “You can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience.”
This is not George Orwell’s 1984. We are not in some Orwellian dystopia where omnipresent government surveillance is going to persecute individualism and minor infractions. Even if Big Brother is watching, he is only looking for serious threats to American lives. This is something we all should want to protect, even if it means giving up some of our privacy.