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Opinion » Comment

Updated: January 7, 2014 02:50 IST

The hidden consequence of Snowden

Robert J. Samuelson
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Robert J. Samuelson.
Robert J. Samuelson.

People do not open Facebook and Twitter accounts because they wish to shroud their lives in secrecy. The Internet is a vehicle for self-promotion, personal advertising and the pursuit of celebrity

There is more than a little hypocrisy to the outcry that the government, through the National Security Agency (NSA), is systematically destroying Americans’ right to privacy. Edward Snowden’s revelations have been stripped of their social, technological and historical context. Unless you’ve camped in the Alaskan wilderness for two decades, you know — or should — that millions upon millions of Americans have consciously and, probably in most cases, eagerly surrendered much of their privacy by embracing the Internet and social media.

People do not open Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts because they wish to shroud their lives in secrecy. They do not use online dating services or post videos on YouTube because they cherish their anonymity. The Internet is a vehicle for self-promotion, personal advertising and the pursuit of celebrity.

The Pew Research Center’s surveys confirm that these behaviours are now entirely mainstream. In 2013, 85 per cent of Americans used the Internet. Of these, almost three-quarters (73 per cent) belonged to social media sites (the biggest: Facebook). Almost one-fifth of adult Internet users have posted videos, many hoping, says Pew, that “their creations go viral.” Among people “single and looking” for mates, nearly two-fifths (38 per cent) used online dating.

If Americans think their privacy is dangerously diminished, there are remedies. They can turn off their PCs, toss their smartphones and smash their tablets. Somehow, this seems unlikely, even though another Pew survey finds that “86 per cent of adult Internet users have taken steps ... to avoid surveillance by other people or organizations.”

To these conscious sacrifices of privacy must be added murkier, collateral losses that are orchestrated by the world’s Googles, Facebooks, service providers and “data brokers,” writes Alice Marwick of Fordham University in The New York Review of Books. They scan users’ digital decisions (sites visited, products and services purchased, habits and hobbies favoured) to create databases, often merged with other socio-economic information. These target advertising, improve political appeals — President Obama’s campaign excelled at this — and influence hiring decisions, as Don Peck recently noted in The Atlantic.

The NSA’s damage to privacy is dwarfed by the impact of market activity. The sensationalism surrounding Snowden’s revelations obscures this. Case in point: The disclosure that U.S. telephone calls are open to NSA monitoring. Suddenly, Big Brother looms. In our mind’s eye, we see the NSA’s computers scouring our every phone call. We’re exposed to constant snooping and the possibility that the government will misuse the information it finds.

NSA and legal restrictions

The reality is far more limited. The NSA is governed by legal restrictions. It does not examine the full database. It searches individual numbers only after it has determined there’s a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a number might be linked to terrorist groups. In 2012, there were 288 of these findings. After one is made, the NSA can retrieve three items about the number: the dates of calls made and received for five years; the other phones’ numbers; and the calls’ length. The NSA is not entitled to listen to conversations, but it can order similar searches on the other numbers involved. Thousands of calls are caught in the dragnet; but the total is puny compared with the untold billions of annual calls.

Whether these searches are effective in fighting terrorism is disputed. The NSA says they’re valuable. A panel of experts appointed by Obama concluded that the monitoring “was not essential to preventing attacks.” But more important for civil liberties and privacy, the panel found that present practices don’t approach past abuses. During the Vietnam War, the panel noted, the CIA investigated 300,000 anti-war critics. The government also sought to “expose, disrupt, and neutralize their efforts to affect public opinion.”

By all means, let’s debate the NSA. Some policies seem suspect, spying on the heads of friendly governments topping the list. It’s also important to recognise that government can coerce and punish in ways that private markets cannot. The potential for abuse is greater. But let's also keep the debate in perspective.

Loss of trust

In a digitised world, spying must be digitised. Then there’s cyber-warfare. Our electronic systems remain vulnerable, as the recent theft of data from millions of credit and debit cards at Target demonstrates. Government and the private sector need to collaborate more closely to protect vital systems. But these “efforts are as good as dead for the foreseeable future,” says Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm. The NSA controversy has “significantly damaged the trust between the private sector and government.” This may be the Snowden affair’s most insidious (and overlooked) consequence.

Vilifying the NSA — letting Snowden dictate the terms of debate — promotes bad history and bad policy. It’s bad history, because the most powerful assaults on privacy have originated in markets. It’s bad policy, because weakening the NSA leaves the United States more exposed to cyber-attacks. — © 2014. Washington Post.

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The argument is lop-sided. Yes we do give up some of our privacy when we use Facebook, Google, Linked-In et al. But that is not the point. The NSA snooping on world leaders, bugging the comms systems of anyone considered even mildly inimical to the USA's interests - that is the real issue. Also very significant, the NSA does not restrict itself to the USA, it operates everywhere in the world. Commercial entities (Face3book, Google et al) use what we share to produce improved sales and promotional tools. The NSA has a purely political agenda.

from:  Peter Armand Menon
Posted on: Jan 8, 2014 at 11:19 IST

The article seems to be justifying snooping. Being a 'prey' to be
spied upon is uncomfortable and not welcome at all. If NSA and other agencies have the legal rights to keep spying in the future, it is prudent for people to keep highly private things to themselves. There is no need in the first place to share everything everywhere. This culture of over dependence on the internet, smart phones etc. if limited can prevent a lot of leakages, isn't it? In earlier times we have been communicating well without the latest technologies, so, if required, why not now?

from:  Shridevi
Posted on: Jan 8, 2014 at 10:51 IST

There are wilful promotions of online activity
and there are private activities on the internet
that are meant for a very restricted for a
certain audience. Such activities not
necessarily are terrorist activities. There has
been a reason for spying being a hidden activity
throughout history. The spy doesn't want to let
its prey know that it is being spied and the
prey doesn't want to be spied at all. Why,
because everyone loves his space, that's
natural. The Hindu has an Op-ed coloumn for
prudently good reasons. :)

from:  Abhishek Bhardwaj
Posted on: Jan 7, 2014 at 18:20 IST
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