The recent scandal that has embroiled the National Security Agency (NSA) has raised serious doubts over the amount of freedom and privacy that online users really have. Far from a scare-mongering piece of sensationalism that brings the Hollywood-tainted spy imagery to mind, the NSA PRISM revelations have serious implications, not just on social media professionals, but for everyone with an online presence.
Hailed by some as a hero and others as a traitor, former CIA technical worker and whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA, a U.S. government intelligence organisation that specialises in gathering information, has been collecting data from private citizens.
Information from telecommunication services on the date and duration of phone calls, along with data provided by technology companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, are being stored in a NSA program entitled PRISM.
Although little is known about how PRISM works, its sophisticated surveillance can include more than just metadata such as http cookies and IP addresses, but content of communications as well.
Despite the controversy, President Obama has defended the operations, saying they are vital to ensuring national security in America. He added that the U.S. was “going to have to make some choices between balancing privacy and security to protect against terror.”
How social media is involved
The global technology firms all originally denied the accusations and all knowledge of the PRISM operations. In remarkably similar press release retort, Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft claimed that they do not provide the government organisation access to their servers or customer data.
However, these claims were contradicted by NSA documents obtained by The Guardian and the Washington Post, and, in an attempt to save their reputation, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter are now calling on the government to permit greater transparency when it comes to data requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“We’d like more NSL (national security letter) transparency and Twitter supports efforts to make that happen,” tweeted Alex Macgillivray, the Chief Lawyer for Twitter.
Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s General Counsel, said in a statement that the social network organisation “would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond.”
He continued: “We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information.”
However, this appears to be too little too late, with 59% of Facebook users last year saying they have “little or no faith in the company to protect their privacy”. As tax scandals already surround Google in the UK press, it appears that the damage from these latest revelations could potentially be irreversible.
How it affects you
Putting aside the headlines, accusations and leaked reports, what does the NSA scandal mean for you? Surely as a UK citizen who simply uses the internet as a work and social tool this has little to no effect on your online activities.
Well, apart from the fact that the UK Government Centre Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have had access to PRISM since June 2010 and generated 197 intelligence reports from its data last year, this blanket surveillance makes no geographic distinctions.
Although most of the NSA’s efforts are focused on the Middle East, information on you, me and literally billions of other private citizens is likely sitting on the program as you read.
Before you chuck out your computer and start fashioning tin foil hats though, remember that no matter how shocking and controversial this scandal may be it is not something you should be afraid of. The situation is actually far from the Orwellian paranoia that has been striking up through corners of the internet.
The reality is that, although the NSA will likely never make use of the vast majority of information it has collected, the very fact that they collected it without your consent is a cataclysmic breach of privacy.
Whilst this unwarranted government surveillance is not in any way illegal, it does threaten the very foundations of our democracy and human rights. Without more legal safeguards, we suffer a lack of protection from these governmental practices and, although he “welcomes the dialogue” on the issue, Obama has flat out refused to change his stance on the matter.
We therefore face a difficult choice as a public. Either we can cut ourselves off from an integral part of modern day life in the hope of achieving greater privacy, or we can accept that we must sacrifice some of our freedom over personal information in the interests of a promised greater protection.
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