Data Driven Business

11 years ago
The Point Of Prism


A while back I asked via my twitter feed what people thought about the Prism issue. Here is a link to the video of Eric Snowden breaking his silence if you want to understand what all the fuss is about.

I got a number of responses to the tweet but also emails from people and privacy issues always raise varying opinions. People’s opinions ranged from general outrage to a passive acceptance that this has always been happening. A couple of people echoed my own opinion that I was surprised that people were surprised.

Surprised & Outraged!

To me it’s no surprise that if the US government knows my email address or my phone number there is a good chance they can find out what I have written in my emails or get my conversations. It was shocking to a lot of other people but I have to ask the more outraged among you when do you think they started doing this? Privacy in this sense doesn’t really exist and never has and the sooner people realise that the only protection you have from being traced today is to live in a tent in the wilderness the better. Governments have been spying on us since there have been organised militaries.

Military Intelligence

Military intelligence (two words combined that don’t make sense – Thanks Metallica! :) ) has been core to government strategy for centuries. Let’s just assume that Prism means if the governing bodies of the world know your email address or your phone number they can tap in and read or listen to all your communications. Now, tapping is not new, governments and agencies all over the world have been doing that since the 1890s since just after phones were invented which is why I find it a surprise that others find this a surprise. The US government have been officially allowed to monitor your email since 2007 when the Protect America Act was passed. But just because the US are out there in the open about it (at least legally) don’t think they haven’t been previously doing it for many years without telling anyone! Also please assume that the Prism data is for sale and that  every government is quietly doing the same thing as the US. So now that we have established that Prism is as intrusive as it gets, what’s my point?

Well bear with me for a sec…

Typically if a government anywhere in the world wants to tap your phone they have to have a court order, something pretty much any policeman can get pretty quickly if he has a good reason. Is that harder for them than tapping into and reading your email? Sure it is, especially if what is being reported is true and Snowden isn’t making an enemy of the US government for laughs!

Is it more of a breach of privacy? To me it’s debatable. I don’t think it’s worse than traditional spying in terms of privacy violations, it’s just more information faster to the investigator. If a court order is filed it means they have a good reason right? (At least normally). Well it’s pretty much the same if you are flagged as potentially dangerous by the algorithms analysing the worlds data (at least under normal circumstances). By normal circumstances I mean that if you’re writing about blowing up the world trade centre you’ll be flagged as a potential criminal and some NSA spook will start investigating. In fact it’s more likely you’ll be segmented in a higher risk category somewhere until you do something similar again before you start being investigated by a human. So in my opinion “normal circumstances” means you have got to be writing or talking about some pretty serious shit to be flagged. It’s similar to when a cop has a real reason to go after a villain. Otherwise big brother has no interest and your email is just a bunch of ones and zeros in the another quadrillion ones and zeros – in other words it’s not even looked at.

Abnormal circumstances

On the other hand of course that’s assuming the predictive analytics tools analysing the data are only looking for the things that are dangerous to the nation they’re protecting. It also assumes that people (for instance guys working for the NSA) are also completely unscrupulous and don’t run “abnormal queries” like “What business deals is blackbeak doing? Is he really a pirate? Has he been shagging the queen of Sheba? Can we blackmail him?”. Forgive me for being pessimistic but I don’t trust spies not to run unscrupulous enquires.

In fact I expect them too.

It’s in their job description to, well, spy on people and dig up stuff.

So the question is do we trust the people we vote in to protect us enough to have access to all kinds of personal information?

Trust and Fear

The problem isn’t that governments can do this, the problem is we don’t trust our governments and the people they hire. We’re afraid of what the spies can do with the information.

Well this is pointless worrying about. Legally or illegally, governments can and will always be able to intrude on your life, invade your privacy and a lot more besides. Deal with it, it’s a fact of life. Unless you want to completely remove yourself from civilisation and live in the mountains with no digital footprint then a government will always be able to find out what they want when they want. Making Prism illegal might mean some (dumber) people would be less afraid (because then they would have the law on their side) but it wouldn’t change anything because governments would just hide it better. That’s not me being cynical it’s just the truth. Snowden has probably only told us about the tip of the iceberg in relation to what his government can and can’t do (and therefore what any government can and can’t do).

Secrecy or transparency?

Personally I’d much prefer a government to simply state “this is what we can know and this is how we can find it out” rather than simply refuse to divulge how they know stuff in the name of national security and hide behind privacy laws which they claim to follow but secretly don’t. I just think politically it’s suicide to do that because everyone is afraid of big brother, which I find farcical because it’s way past 1984. We already live there. It’s not transparent of course because governments would fall if they admitted it, but it’s almost impossible to walk around any major city in the western world without being monitored by cameras, credit card payments, your own phones GPS signal or whatever. At least if we know what the rules are we can live by them. We vote our governments into power and they employ people to be spies. This will always happen and they will always use technology to help them.

But a good spy also keeps secrets or he doesn’t tend to do well at his or her chosen career. And most of us? Well we just ain’t that interesting. I applaud Mr Snowden for his actions, he is a brave man and his purpose was to out what was happening and cause discussions and posts like this one. What worries me more than anything else is when a government keeps quiet. Snowden blew the lid on what was actually happening, but the US government to be fair had passed laws to do what they’re doing. So my final question is who is to blame for the shock the world has expressed? The government who put their controversial law out there or those that didn’t read the fine print?

By: Steve Jackson, CEO, Quru

One thought on “The Point Of Prism

  1. Hi Steve

    There are TWO important distinctions that need to be made when discussing the “mass” collection of Internet data – whether by a government or by a commercial organisation:

    1] Meta Data
    This non-private information. That is, it does not include the content of text messages, emails, telephone calls. These are fundamentally private to the individuals of that conversation. It can still be personally identifiable information (PII) i.e. you know it is me sending the email, the date/time sent, and if I sent an attachment etc.

    Another example of meta information, is knowing what my search history is – the keywords I typed on Google and what sites I visited.

    2] Private Conversations
    The content of my email, any attachments, chat message, phone conversation.

    Most people agree that mining Meta Data for for criminal activity is perfectly acceptable. In fact, I positively want this – I consider it a part of modern policing. It is analogous to policemen/women walking the streets. Its a deterrent as well as providing a rapid response (i.e. close by) if something does happen.

    The problem is capturing Private Conversations….

    As you say, in the non-digital democratic world, that requires a warrant form a judge or magistrate. They decide if the intrusion is justified. That is the democratic “insurance” that society has. In fact, a fair independent judiciary is what defines democracy.

    However, in the digital world it is not possible to separate out Private and Meta Data – it is mixed together and so ALL data is collected.

    That is why PRISM is such a shock. There is no independent judiciary oversight protecting citizens. As such, it is a serious threat to democracy.

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