Good morning! It seems we’ve all woken up in a conspiracy theorist’s fever dream, so I hope your wore your finest tinfoil hat to work.
Yesterday opened with the revelation that the NSA is collecting phone records for millions of Verizon subscribers on a daily basis. If that wasn’t Orwellian enough, then came another bomb from the Washington Post. As part of a program called PRISM, the NSA is collecting information from several major tech companies–Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and finally Apple. The Post claims the agency is grabbing “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets.”
We know all this, by the way, thanks to a disturbed whistle-blower, who sent PowerPoint slides about the program. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” he told the Post. Hello and welcome to your cyberpunk future!
As disturbing as the NSA’s collecting phone records willy-nilly is, it’s nothing compared to the sheer paranoia inspired by the thought that they’re peering over your shoulder at your Gmail inbox. Admittedly, the NSA’s job is foreign intelligence, and technically, they’re targeting non-U.S. citizens with the program. But the Post‘s description of how the program works isn’t particularly reassuring:
Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade, Md., key in “selectors,” or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target’s “foreignness.” That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by The Post instruct new analysts to make quarterly reports of any accidental collection of U.S. content, but add that “it’s nothing to worry about.”
If there’s one phrase that does not reassure people on the Internet, it’s “nothing to worry about.” The Internet is basically one big mechanism for making panics go viral. Oh, and by the way? PRISM is also the name of software sold by Palantir, a very valuable, very secretive company cofounded by loud libertarian Peter Thiel. Worth noting!
Meanwhile, many of the tech companies named in the report have issued denials that they allowed direct government access to user data. Google insisted that, “From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data.” (The Next Web points out it’s possible the info is obtained indirectly, through ISPs or mobile operators.) But these denials are worded with excruciating care, and even Mike Arrington is skeptical that the tech companies didn’t at least have an inkling what was going on.
The tech companies can deny the accusations all they want, though, but the fact of the matter is, it won’t dispel the sense that there’s always an invisible eavesdropper listening in on our most banal and intimate conversations alike. This story plays on all our deepest worries about giving massive, uncaring corporations so much data.
Then again, people have already proved themselves pretty prepared to take that suspicion in stride. It’s not like Google isn’t already scanning our emails with algorithms to serve up the most relevant ads. There’s a pretty good chance everyone will just shrug this off, too, like they’ve shrugged off Mark Zuckerberg’s almost evangelical insistence on the value of sharing and taken Larry Page’s reassurances about Google Glass bathroom creepshots seriously.
Regardless, we’re pretty sure Julian Assange is wandering around the Ecaudorian embassy, yelling “I TOLD YOU SO” to whoever will listen.