A word about the NSA Privacy scandal : Shush.
If you haven’t read a newspaper, a blog, or turned on the TV in the last week or so you might not know what I mean by “NSA Privacy Scandal”. It’s not a very interesting story, so I’ll just give you a precis and then we can get on with business. Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, revealed that the NSA has been collecting the telephone data of tens of millions of US citizens for years without their permission as part of a larger program called PRISM, which gives both the NSA and the FBI access to data from Google and other internet giants. Snowden is, as a consequence of blowing the whistle, currently hiding in Hong Kong. The paranoid and conspiracy theorists have gone into overdrive, kicking out all sorts of interesting theories about how PRISM works and what we should do about it. It’s a threat to our liberty! It’s a disgrace! Right?
If you hold an innocent and naive opinion of the way intelligence works, sure. And I don’t really want to burst your bubble and destroy the illusion that we live in a world where good and evil are demarcated. For you, my dear sweet people, the sun always shines somewhere and our government is fighting against the forces of darkness. It’s us against them, right? The good versus the terrorists. The righteous versus the unbelievers. God’s people, building a holy Jerusalem in the promised land.
For those of you who have a slightly more cynical understanding of the world, what follows is an explanation of how intelligence is a really big deal, is often terrifying, and why you shouldn’t be worried at all. I hope it gives you some comfort, because a lot of people have been freaked out by all this spycraft. Here follows a counter-editorial Q&A in the hope of dispelling some myths.
So who exactly is the NSA?
The NSA, or National Security Agency, is a big part of the US government that monitors a lot of things that its people do in the attempt to safeguard the United States from terrorist attack and internal threats. They monitor phone calls, internet activity and signals intelligence, and have done for a long time. They are one of the better-funded aspects of the Federal government: in 2011, Congress granted them $2 billion to build a new “data centre” in Utah (lol) in order to stockpile internet data about citizens. The NSA is paired, under the AUSCANNUKUS agreement, with a number of other covert government agencies: The UK’s open-secret GCHQ, in Cheltenham, Canada’s CSE, Australia’s DSD, the Dutch SIGINT and New Zealand’s GCSB. Why New Zealand even needs a covert government intelligence branch is a big question. These agencies routinely share data under the PRISM initiative, which allows them to circumvent country-specific legislation without getting into trouble.
Golly, so PRISM is a big deal! We should do something about it.
Actually, chum, PRISM isn’t really anything big. PRISM is just part of a larger agreement called ECHELON (or the Five Eyes program) where English-speaking countries share covert intelligence on a day-to-day basis. Nobody really knows how big ECHELON is, but we know it’s massive and part of the reason the UK, US and Australia are such close bedfellows. Some people believe that English-speaking countries are actually just one super-state pretending to be different countries as part of a plot to usher in a New World Order.
That’s a bit mental, isn’t it?
So getting back to ECHELON. That’s a big fucking deal. I mean, doesn’t it have all sorts of implications when it comes to our privacy? Should I be worried?
ECHELON has existed since the 1960s. Our “data” basically hasn’t been safe any time in the last fifty years.
That’s a fucking disgrace. We should vote out the government and bring in new transparency laws.
ECHELON, PRISM and the AUSCANNUKUS have been ratified on a regular basis by successive governments of different political leanings.
Shit! So we can’t win and we’re all being watched all the time.
Absolutely. But calm down. It’s not a very big deal.
For one thing, “privacy” in the traditional sense hasn’t existed since the beginning of the information age. Since man first crawled out of the primordial ooze and started using dial-up, there have been people copying our information without our knowledge, storing it and retrieving it later. In 1995 this wasn’t a big deal because the internet was used by four guys and all they did was sent each other low-rez gifs of bouncing breasts…
Speaking of, how about a picture to break up all this text?
You got it.
As I was saying, privacy wasn’t a big deal in 1995. Now we keep all of our information in the cloud. Every aspect of our lives has a digital impact. There are a billion people on Facebook, for goodness sake, spewing out their lives into the unpatrolled emptiness of cyberspace. And this information is safeguarded by the flimsiest of brick walls. Anyone can get access to enough information to know more about you than some of your friends do. People like me, for example. I suspect that after most dates, interviews and social meetings one of all of the people go home and look each other up on facebook. “Privacy” in a conventional sense only exists for people who keep their lives entirely offline.
You seem to have given this a lot of thought.
I have. I try not to use my name online if I can help it. My facebook page, twitter account, hell, even this blog are all operated under a pseudonym – a pretty thin one, but it’s a fig-leaf over my nakedness. The point is, we live in a world where government agencies are doing on a large scale what we’re doing on a small scale. Ever lurked on a forum without posting? Googled a hot girl you met at the store? That’s basically what the NSA, GCHQ and the others do. If you’re willingly spewing facts about your life into the void, you can’t then go and bitch about privacy issues. That’s a pretty hypocritical thing to do.
So far this isn’t very comforting. Aren’t you worried at all? I mean, what if they start looking into what you do?
I don’t “do” anything. But that’s not my defence. A bunch of conservatives have said “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide”. These people are dopes. Everyone has something to hide. Scroll back through my browsing history and I look like a nymphomaniac with some extremely dubious fetishes who pirates movies, belongs to a political splinter movement and knows how to build a bomb. Thing is, everybody does if you look too closely into their lives. In the same way that there’s no such thing as a normal sex life (I know who you are and I know what you’re doing and it’s okay as long as you get permission first), there’s no such thing as a normal personal life. People are weird. They google weird things. You should see some of the search terms that send them to this website. That shit would blow your mind.
Do you want to tell an anecdote?
Actually I have two. A long time ago, in the Victorian era, a public-school jokester sent ten telegrams to random members of a well-known gentleman’s club with the cryptic message: “EVERYTHING IS DISCOVERED”. It’s reported that four out of ten of the receivers left the country immediately. That, to me, constitutes proof of our weird secret lives.
The other goes back a year or more. The house I live in accidentally recieved a mysteriously-shaped parcel which was addressed to us but with a neighbor’s name on it. I opened it “by mistake” (that excuse never grows old). Inside was one of these. This story doesn’t have an ending, really, but let me just say that to look at her, you wouldn’t suspect my neighbor was into kinky bum action. It just goes to show.
And it vibrated and everything?
Yeah, man, and it was huge. Eye-wateringly big.
Okay, I take your point about how privacy is actually pretty complicated. Do you have any other points to make?
Actually yes. To build on my last point, your “privacy” is both ephemeral and suspect. I know you’re into weird shit. I know you google stuff in Starbucks when you think no-one can see your computer screen (I can). What’s important to know is that everyone is as weird as you. Some are even weirder. Some are terrorists. The NSA, GCHQ and the others are figuratively drowning in bullshit. They can’t keep up with it all. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to Youtube alone every minute. There are nearly a billion people on Facebook, and many of them daily use keywords that get them red-flagged by security agencies. This is happening everywhere. Every hour and every day. The world is swimming with information, most of it uninteresting to anybody, let alone the NSA. Your internet activity is a drop in the ocean. You are lost in the white noise. Revel in the transcendence of your perception! Nobody is watching you. That’s how insignificant you are.
Whoa, there, calm down.
Do you have any other points to make?
Not really. Um, be nice to people, eat all your vegetables. And don’t worry about what the government thinks about you. They don’t. In fact, nobody at all is really reading your facebook status updates. So…you might want to deal with that.
Yeah, stay away from conspiracy theory websites. They mess with your head. Or maybe that’s all the fluoride they put in the water in order to mind-control you with HAARP while they invent a new kind of AIDs that only kills off Liberals.
Well thanks for that. This is all pretty terrifying. I’m going to post a strongly-worded facebook update about all this NSA bullshit.
Well, they’ll be the first to read it.