PRISM and Privacy
In the last column here I wrote about the decline in what used to be called privacy. The definition of privacy is mutable, ever changing. What was considered private 100 years ago, even 20 years ago is practically non-existent today. As I wrote in 2006 before the iPhone and all devices that have followed “Technology Increases, Privacy Declines” One of the characteristics of the Shift Age is that all of us now live with two realities, the physical reality and screen reality.
So, the uproar around Mr. Snowden’s disclosure of PRISM and how much the NSA, with full backing of the United States government must be looked at within current context. That context is complex: ever more connectivity, ever more mobile computing power, an explosive use of social media based upon sharing, fear of terrorism, ever more information being created with ever more intelligent devices and chips and an ever greater integration of humanity globally as a result of all of this.
Edward Snowden is a whistle blower. It is because of him that we now know how pervasive is the accessing of personal communications of all Americans and many citizens of other countries. His revelations immediately caused NSA officials and others to “revise” earlier comments made about the program. So, the government response to Snowden’s revelations confirmed both that these disclosures were correct and that our government officials lied to us.
We now have learned about the secretive FISA “court” that must approve requests for surveillance and that it is only the government that argues before the court, there is no ‘defense’ in the situation. Not exactly the checks and balances the founding fathers envisioned. It has been reported that in the last 33 years there have been 33,000 surveillance requests made by various intelligence agencies and only 11 have been denied. It could be said that the military industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us against has set up its own secretive Supreme Court, but with no counter balance and with no transparency.
Snowden is not a hero. If he was a hero he would have contacted the ACLU, a couple of publicity seeking top tier defense attorneys and used this high level support to return to the United States. This would have provoked constant front page, top of newscast coverage of this issue. Think of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I wish Snowden had taken this route, as it would have forced a much deeper conversation. Those supporting Snowden would constantly be asking: “If Snowden broke a law, what exactly was that law and who of our elected officials approved it?” This would cause extremely high levels of squirming and linguistic hedging by many in Washington.
It is extremely disappointing that there has not been a larger, deeper national conversation about privacy, surveillance and what has and is going on. Predictably some members of congress are expressing outrage but others are not. Freedom and protect are two words that are and will be used a lot. Politicians know these two words will trigger Pavlovian responses by the citizens. That isn’t a conversation, that is just rhetoric.
Since George Orwell’s novel “1984” was published in 1948 we know that governments will routinely create enemies to both unite the citizenry and spy on them at the same time. [It is appropriate that sales of George Orwell’s “1984” went up 5,800% on Amazon the first week of the Snowden disclosures. ] The common enemies in the last 100 years have been fascism, communism and now terrorism. All were valid enemies of the United States that triggered a lot of invalid spying on private citizens. However, PRISM feels a lot like the SS or the Stasi or the KGB of our enemies that wanted to take away freedom. Have we become our enemies?
As a futurist who looks at trends from past history into the future, it is clear to me that there will be ever less privacy as we go forward. The accelerating electronic connectedness of the planet, one of the three forces of the Shift Age, and the technologies that amplify this connectedness point to ever more personal information being shared and being available. It therefore serves no purpose to be Luddites about such technologies.
What we need to do as a country and as members of the human race is to talk about the new landscape of today. The privacy of today is much less than that of 100, 25 or 10 years ago and is much more than 10 years from now. No turning back. We have already given up the privacy of our grandparents and parents. Instead we need to have a refinement of the ethics of living in a world with no privacy. The one our children will inhabit. The privacy of the past is going away, so we need to think through how that affects ethics and behavior.
Individuals, corporations and governments must open up a discussion of what privacy means in a civil society for the 21st century.