Reality check: in light of the NSA revelations, just who do we need to fear?

Like everyone else, I’m shocked yet not really surprised at the revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) have access to, well, basically anything they want. Since the news broke, I’ve been thinking about what would constitute an appropriate response.

I could, for example, attempt to lock down everything in an attempt to prevent the NSA spying on me. But, to be quite honest, this isn’t really an option: I haven’t got the skills to do so. It would also make my life significantly less enjoyable.

So, stepping back for a moment, I’ve been thinking about who I should be worried about. The current concerns seem to be directed at the US government for having access to people’s data. Now, while I don’t for one second like the fact that my data can (and possibly is being) triangulated, at least the ostensible aim of the NSA’s snooping is to protect people and save lives. Meanwhile, the aim of those allegedly involved in PRISM – companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft – is to maximise shareholder value. Remember, it’s data these companies collected about their users that the US government deems important enough – and extensive enough – to capture.

In a democracy, we can do something about governments: we can replace them by means of elections. But where’s our recourse with private companies? Where are their checks and balances? While it would be easy to argue that we can replace services provided by Company X by those with Company Y, the problem comes with scale and cultural norms. I could (and probably should), for example, decide to swear off Facebook, Google+ and Twitter as they are private public spaces. But not only is there no viable alternative that respects my privacy, I would be a social outcast.

We need more transparent government, certainly. We need to resist secret laws that infringe our privacy to satisfy politicians’ whims and fancies. But it’s also important to keep some perspective here. We are all complicit. We voluntarily give up our privacy to get discounts and deals at supermarkets. We submit to tracking and data mining for the sake of shiny services. Every day we choose (or willingly allow) the sharing of our personal information with companies who host it on servers we do not control.

In my opinion, the best thing we can do in the wake of these revelations is to be more intentional about where we put our data. If we’re making a trade-off between ease-of-use (and shininess) and privacy, then we should be mindful of that. We should realise that we’re involved in a compromise. At the end of the day, it’s not about breaking out the tinfoil hat, it’s about being an informed, responsible, and literate citizen – whatever your position on the privacy spectrum.


I’m fortunate to work for Mozilla, a non-profit that doesn’t track people and, indeed, builds tools for users to be able to track the trackers. If you’d like to see who’s tracking you online, check out Collusion.

Image CC BY Sean MacEntee

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2 thoughts on “Reality check: in light of the NSA revelations, just who do we need to fear?

  1. Very well put Dr. Belshaw.

    The crux of the problem of people being astonished by the NSA revelations (I was one of them) is the seemingly involuntary compromise that you are making when accessing things both on the web (via name and email) and in flesh (personal info for a discount).

    There’s only so much that we can QUICKLY change on the federal level of government… but, just as you said, it’s critical to be more mindful of where you’re supplying data about yourself.

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