Monday, 12 August 2013

Why I welcome the NSA reading my Facebook feed, yet have very high privacy settings

Edward Snowden did the right thing in exposing to the world that the NSA can currently find out
what everyone in the world Instagrammed for breakfast and who we are sending sexts to during office hours. It is an enormous amount of government power that the NSA assumes (legally assumes, even) and we probably should have a say in whether we the people like this breach of our confidentiality.

That said, I'd like to side myself on the “in favour of wire-tapping” part of this debate and try and argue that ultimately these intelligency agencies do a fine and necessary job in protecting my safety. I mainly do this because the most eloquent and well-thought responses against the NSA’s spy network (let’s call a spade a spade) boil down to people being afraid of transgressions that a good due process could pick up on, or a rather lazy and unnuanced claim that we “just” have a right to privacy. This claim’s lazy because users often don’t realize that the right to privacy can have two very different meanings, and the one they have in mind isn’t one they should be concerned with when it details PRISM.


Sometimes the Big Brother you want to run away from is simply just your brother

Privacy, in its daily use, is the ability to keep secrets from individuals, and in rights terms it is the right to create valuable personal connections. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis termed privacy as “the right to be let alone”. The logic behind this is intuitive; there are stories, wishes and physical attributes you have that are very important to you, and if every Joe on the street would know them, they may feel less important. More than that, the process of sharing these intimate stories and wishes has a specific meaning to you, as it means you can control who enters your circle of trust and friendship. On the face of it a random clerk from the United States now being able to access these secrets as well could feel as if your right is debased. The contrary is true. I’d argue that part of the importance of keeping the secret also lies in making sure you keep it secret from people you’d care about knowing your secret.

I travel a lot by public transport, and hear many people tell highly intimate and shocking stories to each other or by phone on the train. None of them is too concerned that I hear it, however. The reason is that I don’t know them so their secrets have no informational value to me. More than that, I don’t have any way in which I could use this secret for my own gain – the information is simple white noise to me. Similarly, a NSA wage slave whom I have no contact with, who is contractually obliged to keep my stuff secret and who can only look at limited parts of my communication – such as the content of my phone calls to terrorist suspects – will find information that I find important to just be white noise. The infraction on my right to privacy is therefore minimal. The evidence of this should be easy to see; the price you pay for your right to privacy being violated is usually a very emotional response and a feeling of discomfort. That is why a burglary is so bad; someone violated your safe place, your house, and touched belongings that hold dear emotions to you. It is also the reason that I still oppose random house searches while supporting the NSA reading my e-mails: I simply feel more violated by the former than the latter.
Simply put, I’d care more about my boss seeing drunk Facebook pictures than a random stranger somewhere overseas in a bunker. In this way, my right to privacy remains upheld.

That level of discomfort simply hasn’t been brought to light thanks to the PRISM scandal. If people really felt that violated, why aren’t there massive Civil Rights Act-era protests occurring on the streets of every major city worldwide? If the infraction on our privacy is so important, why can the media get away with making the NSA leak a running soap opera on Mr. Snowden’s asylum options? And, probably, those opposing the NSA’s data gathering could have more impactful arguments than theoretical what-if’s on government abuse.


If the government is evil, there are more pressing concerns than your phone being wire-tapped

“I have nothing to hide”. Five simple words that are despised by privacy proponents around the world. But while this may seem like a lazy defense, privacy proponents equally make lazy analogies linking the US’s data gathering to despotic regimes like Iran and North Korea.

The argument that is simple to dispute is the idea that the evil US government will crack down on protestors and subtly coerce political dissidents in censoring their speech and thought in a truly Orwellian nightmare. Honestly, if the NSA were using this to track down and capture anti-oil or anti-gun protesters, I think we would’ve found this out by now. We hear about political opponents being silenced by autocratic governments on a nearly daily basis, even from beyond the Great Firewall of China. And in a society with hefty freedom of speech protections dissident voices can still be heard, even if the government can now also read your private e-mails voicing these concerns. Moreover, I’d be more worried about other infractions on your free speech rights (Murdochesque media oligarchies or “free speech zones” at Presidential rallies) than people reading your private communication. I also think that the government would do a bit more than just screen your phone calls if it really wanted to put you out of action.

Legal scholar Daniel J. Solove put the stronger version of the argument best in his book, The Digital Person: we needn’t worry about 1984, but we should be concerned that NSA mirrors Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”. What we should be scared about is that secrecy, tunnel vision and a presumption of guilt in the judicial system will lead to miscarriages of justice.
My response, however, would be simple. At most, this would indict the culture of secrecy surrounding PRISM, and not the data collection as a whole. There is still merit in collecting data even if terrorists would supposedly know how the NSA goes about obtaining it. But moreover, this problem could best be tackled by having a strong chat and strong reforms within our legal system. Bradley Manning’s trial was a sham, with the defendant being tortured for years and without legal aid for most of his preparation. The US government would do his best to avoid these travesties, but focus to bringing terrorists in civilian courts with proper burdens of proof, admissible evidence and capable judges. This would get rid of many of the problems that data collection may bring, without losing the unique security benefits we currently enjoy.


The logical reasons why PRISM stands for safety

Because, really, that is the argument at the heart of the case for PRISM, and one we can’t overlook. There are very simple, logical reasons why massive amounts of data can protect us from terrorists, killer cells and lone wolves. Arguments that we can articulate even without knowing fully how the data is collected. Firstly, the fact that the NSA collects all these data already forces terrorist movements to mask their communications. In the best possible outcome, we capture lawbreakers because they communicate openly about their (proposed) misdeeds. But even if that doesn’t happen, this forces terrorists to resort to less convenient and fast methods of communication, such as delivering personal messages or speaking in code, which is harder to decipher and less friendly to newcomers for the cause. More than that, we can now find out if there are lone wolves or sleeper cells, who are virtually untraceable using old-fashioned means. And we can rid the web of propaganda that may inspire so-inclined youngsters thousands of miles away from the hotbeds of terrorist activities.

So here’s the case for the NSA: your right to privacy is left pretty much untouched, problems with data collection are easily negatable and you can sleep more safely as it stops evil right in its tracks. We should have the debate about PRISM, but we shouldn’t stop it dead in its tracks.

Disclaimer: Neither the NSA or the American government has paid me to write this article (although I wouldn’t mind if they contacted me for payment details). There also is as far as I know no Predator drone circling around this house.


  1. An excellent response from fellow debater qnd it whizz Rob Lyon on the dangers of overreliance on data can be found on

  2. I am not entirely sure about this Daan. May I raise several issues that I have with your article?

    About terrorism, security and the rest. As far as I've listened to congressional hearings, I got to know that PRISM helped to *maybe* prevent 1 terrorist attack throughout its existence.

    Furthermore, terrorists would use covert methods of communication regardless of whether the NSA existed or not, I think it's quite obvious and you shouldn't attribute that to these programs. You can consider that up until recently they arguably didn't even know of its existence...

    In other words, I'm just not sure whether effectiveness of these programs in preventing terrorist attacks are above nil. I presume that you would defend them even if that was true, right?

    But more importantly I want to ask, aren't you at all concerned with potential abuse of that data? While it is obviously true that nobody will actually read emails of an average Joe, I think that misses the point entirely, considering the history of the U.S. on these issues (e.g. COINTELPRO).