On June 5, the American public learned about the National Security Agency’s classified surveillance program that monitors and records users’ cellular and Internet data, both domestically and abroad. Many Americans were shocked and outraged for various reasons — the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against President Obama’s administration, Speaker of the House John Boehner accused whistleblower Edward Snowden of treason and many New York Times columnists stopped writing about the economy to voice their opinions.
Until now, Americans’ overall response has been to criticize others and place blame — it’s your fault, his fault, her fault and their fault, not my fault. But I’d like to ask the Obama and NSA critics to criticize themselves and their complacency with Internet and cellular surveillance by asking — how highly do we actually value our privacy in this digital age?
Looking at Facebook, it seems few people actually care about the security of their personal information. We — especially “Generation Y” — publish everything, from our hourly mood “statuses” to travel itineraries to drug fetishes. If one would prefer that the NSA not know that you smoke weed or drink underage, posting your Greek Life party photos might not be very smart — but of course, this is an extreme example. We seem determined to expose ourselves right down to our leopard-print underwear — updating our relationship statuses, geographic location and current activities wirelessly and all the time. And for what? A seemingly more vibrant social life? Recognition? Popularity? The goal of social networking sites is plainly not privacy. It’s publicity. So, to the Facebook users who have been posting complaints about NSA surveillance, remember this — the NSA can’t see it if you don’t post it.
But many of us know that social networking websites are not very private. It’s been fairly common knowledge that Facebook and Google have been tracking our Internet data for advertising purposes for years. Most of us know that cellphone providers keep records of our text messages and phone calls. Internet and cellular-based companies have been watching us the whole time, even before the NSA began their PRISM program. Therefore, the NSA couldn’t monitor our cellular and Internet data if we weren’t already complacent with private companies watching and monitoring us. This current issue with NSA surveillance is a not-so-surprising next step following our lack of attention and foresight regarding our agreements with companies like Facebook and Verizon.
But there are a few important differences between how the NSA “watches” us and how private companies watch us. Firstly, we sign contracts with private companies, consenting to their surveillance — those “terms and conditions” that you probably skimmed over so you could play Angry Birds sooner. And secondly, private companies — like Google and Facebook — use our data for advertising so they can make more money. In contrast, the government claims that it monitors and records our data to try to protect us. So, although I can foresee problems arising from unchecked bureaucratic surveillance over its citizens — shout-out to Orwell — right now I, for one, am more keen to sacrifice my privacy for my nation’s safety and security than I’m for Google and Facebook’s private profits — assuming that the NSA and Obama administration are indeed spying for “the greater good.”
Personally, I’ve always been suspicious that my less-than-reputable activities in the cyberspace vacuum were being abducted and probed somewhere. I send e-mails, web posts, text messages, etc., and how it works is a mystery to me. Like many, I choose to live and operate in digital formats that I don’t fully comprehend. And I’ll confess — I don’t care to learn how they work. If you do care, locate an IT person or online forum — assuming they aren’t yet on the NSA payroll — and educate yourself. Complaints that the Obama administration is abusing its power of surveillance would have more credibility if the ones complaining would demonstrate some concern for their own privacy, as a matter of self-defense.
So as many of us continue our protest against the Obama administration, the NSA, Google, Facebook or whomever one sees fit, we might pause to consider how we each have created our own illusion of Internet and cellular privacy. Because right now the situation seems like this — we’re standing naked and looking out of a one-way mirror, and we’ve just learned that the people on the other side can see us too.
Zak Witus is an LSA sophomore.