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The death of privacy through the PRISM of the US Government

The revelation that the US has been engaging in systematic surveillance of potentially every user of US-based technology since 2007 has come as a shock to everyone. PRISM, as the project is called, has allowed US secret services (and other friendly governments like the UK), unfettered access to all content that traverses the networks of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Skype, Facebook, AOL and other US companies.

That this should be happening at all is possibly no surprise. The NSA in particular has a long history of programs of Internet surveillance under scant scrutiny. The difference with PRISM is one of scale and its largely indiscriminate trawling for data. The underlying justification for searching could perhaps be terrorist related, but there is absolutely no way of knowing that the NSA is stopping there. Everything has become permissible in the name of the “fight against terrorism”.

For Obama, the trade off is simple,“It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. This is no different to the claims made by the CEOs of Google and Facebook when espousing their particular views on the meaning of “privacy” and more importantly, who gets to decide what that meaning is.

As the revelations of the extent of what the US is doing to the rest of the world sinks in, it is perhaps important to reflect that by using technology that is predominantly US, we all agree to abide by the terms of use of this technology and these terms define words and concepts such as “privacy”. This is leading to a fundamental shift in what we all understand that these words mean and what value we all place on them. The problem with “doing away with” privacy is not just a matter of convenience. Privacy is part of what maintains civil society and the relationships that are integral for its effective workings.

The irony of the US government deeming that the peoples’ privacy is not that important is that they are outraged at the loss of privacy when secrets are divulged. Again if privacy was not at issue here, then why would Obama concern himself with accusing the Chinese of orchestrating cyber-attacks on US companies? Again, when it comes to corporate “privacy”, it seems this is still an important concept to defend. For the US and western governments at least.

As the companies accused of participating in PRISM vehemently deny their involvement, their is no inclination to believe them any more than their Government. These are the same people who for years have been saying that the public has overstated the importance of privacy. Google has fought against anonymity for example and has recently claimed that privacy fears of Google Glass will eventually fade. Or take Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who has repeatedly stated that “What people want isn’t complete privacy”.

The story will continue to unfold as it seems that whistle-blowers within the security services are intent on the world getting to hear about the details of systems like “Boundless Informant” that allows the NSA to navigate its billions of pieces of information collected from around the world. There is no doubt that the companies named in the PRISM revelations have worked with the NSA and other agencies to comply with requests to divulge information. To a certain extent, it really doesn’t matter what the exact technological details are. The scale is massive, access is largely unfettered and it doesn’t need to involve a direct day-to-day interaction with the companies involved.

What is at stake however is the fact that the fundamental importance of privacy in western democratic society is being changed forever. The US Government and the companies that are part of PRISM have declared it unimportant and essentially valueless (for the general population that is). And why not? Privacy is simply an inconvenience for both commerce and national security. After all, and paraphrasing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, control is that much more “frictionless” without it.

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