1. Don't Think This Doesn't Have Anything To Do With You. It Does.
By using the Internet, you are, in a sense, sticking a pin labeled as you onto a map. The map is made of data, and your IP address, the unique number given to your PC for identification on the network titled "Internet," is the label. You are the pin. You decide where you go on this gargantuan map, be it Collegemagazine.com, Nytimes.com, Google, Pinterest, Mashable, or xxxvids.com- whatever, not whichever. The beauty of the Internet is that it is entirely up to you. For many years, we assumed another beauty of the Internet was its privacy. Sitting alone in front of a screen, on which we could go anywhere, at any time-this illusion of total isolation seemed plausible, and for the overwhelming majority of us, methods of breaking into that isolation were so abstruse and reserved for glandular computer nerds, George Orwell and sci-fi films starring Jeff Goldblum, that we decided to simply believe in the illusion. But as Edward J. Snowden has revealed, the government knows your label- and it knows the map. In fact, it owns the map. Private companies like Google and Microsoft harbor your data – all of it – which the National Security Agency (NSA) has had access to under the auspices of amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) called the Patriot Act, and the Amendment Act of 2008. If you think this doesn’t matter, you’re simply wrong. Because the government cares about what you do, how you do it, and with whom you do it, you must care as well.
2. The U.S. Government Is Bending The Law To A Breaking Point.
I point you to an article co-authored by Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, and Christopher Sprigman, professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, before you mosey on through this section. After speaking with Jennifer Granick, she earnestly professed that “The Criminal N.S.A," an Op-Ed on nytimes.com, along with another piece that I will mention later, lay out all she can offer on the situation. The following is largely paraphrase: Under the aforementioned Patriot Act, the F.B.I. can get a court order to obtain “tangible” information if the information is “relevant” to a Foreign Investigation. In turn, the government has seized, as Edward Snowden revealed, everyone’s “phone metadata” by “legally” interpreting the Patriot Act to allow for seizure of anything potentially relevant to a Foreign Investigation. This creates an incredibly broad purview– it can always be argued that anything can be potentially related to anything. Under the Amendment Act of 2008, an N.S.A. program revealed by Snowden called Prism is allowed, sans warrant, to target individuals or companies deemed suspicious or foreign and monitor them. Once this unwarranted information is obtained, the government can go ahead and get a court order for all data. This may seem okay, not great so far, given that this monitoring applies only to foreign entities. But Prism is designed to gather data until it has 51% confidence a target is foreign. Any and all surveillance data received until that threshold is kept and is “legal." That most certainly could include something like Facebook chat data in which data regarding persons other than the targeted person is collected. This communication, this tenuous association, however, is also considered part of the “target." The Fourth Amendment explicitly protects against this type of warrantless invasion, demands there be “probable cause” for all searches and seizures. Justification for these actions stems from flimsy semantics. Our right to privacy, our Democracy, rests on these loose readings.
3. Edward Snowden Is Neither A Hero, Nor A Villain.
Edward Snowden is a textbook whistle-blower. He wants governmental transparency, strict interpretation of the constitution and the maintenance of pure liberty. Conspiracy theories are bogus– it’s clear from the famous interview footage that he has a moral agenda and he believes in it. Take into consideration that he knowingly chose to become an internationally-known criminal, to be accused of first-order treason, and to risk not ever seeing home again– he chose all that over a job paying him 200,000 dollars a year to live in Hawaii and do what Snowden called “not a lot of work," i.e. the American Dream. He’s sincere about protecting our liberties, and for that he should be commended. But he’s not a hero. He is currently god-knows-where carrying four computers containing crucial top-secret U.S. surveillance and intelligence data. In his interview, he claims to know where each C.I.A. base is located in the world, and to have the entire roster of N.S.A. staff, among other things. This man, no matter how lofty and good his intentions are, is just a man. He has limits. And computers can be hacked, or stolen. It’s honorable to defend our liberties, but what he has done has put other innocent people’s lives at stake, the country in a lose/lose diplomatic situation. It smells a little like martyrdom, and don’t tell me he hates being a moral pariah.
4. The Internet Will Not Be The Same.
I previously mentioned another article by Sprigman and Granick. Titled “U.S Government Surveillance: Bad for Silicon Valley, Bad for Democracy Around the World," the piece delves into the shock
–waves of this whole affair with a focus on international relations. Being so broad in its scope, FISA allows for almost limitless seizure of foreign data so long as it is reasonably assured the “target” is living abroad. The co-authors imagine U.S. data invasion from that foreign perspective: “All this happens at the request of a government they can't hold to account and is approved by a secret foreign court they can't petition.” It’s basically Kafka. And here’s the kicker: It’s extremely easy for the government to take international information because almost every major internet company is based in the United States, meaning our laws, our courts, our officials determine the access. It’s all in the N.S.A.’s backyard. Rightfully so, foreign individuals and companies feel helpless and are becoming untrustworthy of these large American companies which, intended or not, are complicit in Prism and N.S.A. surveillance. Such doubt and distrust may cause “a shift away from U.S.-based Internet services” which the co-authors consider “a blow to free expression around the world." They posit that other governments do not have the same marriage to civil liberties or free-speech rights. If local pockets of web-usage spring up in such loci, then parts of the web may be censored or monitored intrusively. Think restrictions– a taboo word for both Internet and Democracy.
5. This Is Far From Over.
The balance of the whole affair shifts precipitously by the hour. Slides diagramming Prism were released on June 6th, and more slides containing mysterious other programs were released on June 29th. It’s unclear how many more there are, but Snowden is still communicating with the Guardian and Washington Post, where his leaks were first published. Snowden’s asylum is sure to be an issue for days, or weeks, to come. Putin is setting ultimatums prompting Snowden to withdraw his bid for asylum, twenty-one countries have rejected him so far, and some in the U.S. are talking death penalty. I don’t predict his capture will come speedily, and even if it does, his trial, his sentence, and the potential blackmailing, underhanded dealings and politicking if some country accepts him will set precedents for legal proceedings involving digital crime. There are home-focused questions. Big companies’ role in this is to be determined. Yes, they’ve sent out apologies, claimed innocence and lack of awareness, but there have been rumored “gag-orders” on these companies. I tried contacting a Google employee, who declined to respond. What do the nine companies implicated really know? There are tons more questions, and a lot that matters to us College students hangs on how these questions are answered. Stay posted.