In Response to the Supporters of PRISM


Perhaps I am sensitive to privacy intrusion after my family enjoyed some of the “benefits” of a totalitarian-esque communist state. Perhaps my hatred of big-brother solidified after reading (and re-reading) George Orwell’s 1984. Or, perhaps, it’s just common sense.

Last week validated the vilified Assange and his Cyberpunks thesis: big-brother is watching your every step. Yes, you’ve all read the details about how the NSA has agreements with (at least) Verizon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Pal Talk, Youtube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. But I’m not writing this article to go over the details of the program nor how expansive it is. I wanted to respond to some of arguments that support PRISM that I have seen in response to all the news media critiques.

(Credulous) Arguments Supporting PRISM

The Eric Schmidt argument

He didn’t invent this argument, but he is the most famous and consequential head to have been caught saying it. On CNBC in 2009, Eric said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” And that’s the argument. What have you got to hide that you’re so concerned about privacy? This argument scares me. It’s more than just Eric’s hypocrisy (he had a bunch of information published, which he wanted to keep … aghem… secret), this is the go to argument of every totalitarian state (including the state in 1984).

To respond to this childish argument, I can think of a few things that one may be doing in secrecy:

1. Researching about their own health. Health is a touchy subject, and if Joanne wants to go on Web-MD to research genital warts, should that information not be private?

2. Someone wants to battle their daemons without facing prosecution. If a drug addict wants to fight his or her disease on their own terms by researching it on-line  should that information not be kept away from the government?

3. High risk\high profile users. What about high profile users (such as Eric Schmidt who experienced this himself!) who do not want their personal information known for reasons such as black mail? (More on this in my response to the next argument)

4. Cases of government (non-violent) protest. This is the most important case, and one that’s a little tougher to swallow by non-disaffected groups. But imagine that in the 19th century the government had such access into our brains. Would the women’s suffrage movement have happened if the government could quash activism at the grass-roots level? The only reason why Eric’s argument holds any bearing is because we somewhat agree with the current powers. We would have a different view if Verizon, Microsoft, and Google shared information with Iran.

The Technocrat (Obama’s) Argument

Obama (and other technocrats) have told us that the information they collect is simply used by an algorithm to identify patterns that looks suspicious (I hope they mean terrorist activity). Anyone who works with big-data and analytics knows that in order to get meaningful results, the whole data set needs to be available for computation. That is, if you input only partial information such as the data obtained from a limited warrant, your results will be skewed and, most likely, flawed. I agree. I agree with the fact that (for now) the administration is using this data in an innocent way to go after only the most extreme elements in our society. I also agree that the whole data set needs to be available.

What I don’t agree is the short sightedness of this argument. PRISM takes away a certain level of user control and opens up a door for corruption or negligence. Sure the data that is collected is currently only used to feed into PRISM’s algorithm, but what if (a) the algorithm changes based on a change in the administration or (b) the data is stolen. In the first scenario, what if some far right-wing evangelical Christian gets elected into power and wants to go after all the scientists who support the “theory” of global warming (basically, ALL of the scientists). PRISM allows them to do that. For the second scenario, what if some part of the administration is corrupted to steal the information being funnelled into PRISM in order to gain some sort of power. Imagine House of Cards meets big-brother. Not likely you say? What about, then, negligence? Surely, opening up another feed of our personal information only makes it less safe. If hackers get control of this funnel, they don’t only have access to personal information of one corporation (which has happened on many occasions), suddenly they have access to a slew of them at once!

Bill Maher’s Argument for Safety

Bill Maher and I agree on almost everything, except for this. I’m sure I can attribute this argument to a different person, but since I so closely identify with Bill, I’m going to name it after him. He makes the point in his last episode (6/7/2013) that perhaps the trade-off between privacy is worth the extra security we have. To make his point, he quotes Obama who says that it was only after he had access to privileged information that he realized how important such programs as PRISM are. He also points to one thing: Nukes. He points out that the founding fathers could not have foreseen a bomb that could obliterate a whole metropolitan area and the millions of people that it holds.

This is a valid argument as is the technocrat one, but again I feel that it lacks foresight. I guess since Bill already dismissed those who could not foresee the nuclear weapon, it would not suffice to quote Benjamin Franklin who said that, “Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.” It’s true that times have changed and now we have true technology of mass destruction. It’s scary to think of a dirty bomb scenario (or biological weapons). However, I don’t know whether this argument stands the test of reason and logic. If a terrorist is intelligent enough to build or procure a nuclear weapon, would they be caught in PRISM’s net? I’m sure their every communication and footprint would be encrypted. I don’t think that even the least savvy Anonymous hacker would get tripped up by PRISM. It’s a very simple thing to maneuver around: VPNs, proxies, encryptions, and care. Every decent drug dealer knows to use a “burner” and dispose of it every so often. Every hacker knows to utilize VPNs and proxies. Every spy knows to encrypt their communications. Surely PRISM can’t crack PGP or AES quickly enough.

So in reality we don’t even have the option to trade privacy for security. Sure, stupid terrorists like the Boston Marathon bombers might have been caught, but–wait!–they weren’t. Perhaps that was a miss. But because the PRISM program lacks any sorts of transparency, we cannot compare the hits versus misses. That is, we cannot judge the programs efficacy. Whether, like Schroedinger’s cat, the outcome is affected by this observance is another question.

In Conclusion

In July 2012, I wrote an article encouraging users not to use Kaspersky because of the governments strong-hold on power and freedom (and the fact that their laws clearly mandated back-doors and compliance). What can I say, then, about America’s biggest tech companies? Sure our ideals are more closely aligned with Google than the Kremlin, but for how long? To tell you the truth, I don’t know what to say. Perhaps we should all move to the Netherlands to enjoy TRUE civil liberties.

Hyperbole aside, the reason why America has been held as a beacon of light in the fog of political corruption, state totalitarianism, and abuse of power is because of one thing: checks and balances. One branch of government watches the other while elections and news media lubricate the whole process. No one branch has all the power. And on the day that the Patriot Act passed congress (with W’s signature a sure guarantee) I knew that the beacon of light dimmed if not extinguished completely. Last week was proof of that fact. The question is, where do we go from here? Will the once greatest nation in history overcome this great test of theirs or will the people fall complacent to the abuses of their government?

UPDATE (6/10/2013): The most important link w.r.t. to this scandal as written by Daniel Ellsberg (the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago). He calls Edward Snowden and the PRISM leak as the most important example of whistle blowing in history (including his own leak). As well, he goes into detail why it’s such an atrocity. When I have time I will include the link in my actual blog post. Please read the article and watch the video interview with Snowden:



Comments 8

  1. The people will be somewhat annoyed but as long as this data is not used against them, they will tolerate it. Of course, once that happens……

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    That’s exactly right Joey. I think that most people do not have an idealist\principled stance on the privacy issue (or any issue really). It’s only once it hits home that the populace will react, but as you say, by then, it may be too late. That’s why we need groups like the EFF. As well, this incidence might jolt those of us who DO have a principled stance for privacy into action. Thanks for your post!!

  3. Dominik, I agree with everything you wrote. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; anyone remember these values? Can we live in peace if there is no privacy? Real democracy recognizes these inalienable rights and without citizen rights we have a token democracy.

    Down with Big Brother!

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  5. It’s not how I am tracked that I have a problem with its how it was done and how my info is handled, it should be completely open(not the info collected), people should be told how and why the information is collected, what happens to it and how secure and private it is, does that make sense? You know full well that some greedy politician is going to use the laws and info to make their pockets even heavier.

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    I agree. To that, the NSA responds that the program is not as effective when it’s transparent. If terrorists know how it works then they will take precautions to ensure that they do not get caught. But as I mentioned, I only think that the stupidest and least savvy terrorists don’t use precautions\protections anyway (under the heading Bill Maher’s Argument for Safety). Although it seems like the PRISM net did not even catch the stupidest of terrorists like the Boston bombers. If it didn’t catch them, I cannot imagine that it would have caught someone with at least a shred of brain activity.

  7. Just signed up for hide my ass vpn, and have to say that so far the results are awesome! I have no idea what I was doing without this. Now, I don’t have to spend all this extra money on premium cable since I have access Netflix.

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