The great irony of yesterday's biggest story is just how much outrage was directed against it on social media.
Early on Thursday, The Guardian broke a story that claimed the National Security Agency was collecting millions of Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) customers' calling data on an "ongoing, daily basis." Later in the day, the story expanded when The Washington Post revealed that a joint NSA-FBI program, codenamed PRISM, has been data-mining the servers of nearly every major American online company for information on millions of Americans -- perhaps all Americans -- since 2007. Twitter, which is not included on the Post's list of nine companies, has been flooding with anti-spying commentary since the story broke. The #NSA hashtag trended for hours -- it's still the most popular hashtag a day later.
By the time you first found out about the NSA spying operation, whether it was through The Guardian or the Post or here or anywhere else, you'd already shared more than you know with more than one major data center.
It's quite possible that you found this article while browsing Yahoo!, which tailors its list of featured articles based on what you've read in the past. After you finish reading, you may choose to share it on Facebook (NASDAQ: FB ) , or you might tweet it, informing one or the other social network (or both) that you are in some way anti-privacy, which might very well result in sponsored ads pitching privacy software later in the day. You could even post it to the barren wasteland that is Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) Plus, which will subtly alter the priority ranking of Google's search results the next time you go looking for anything related to privacy, security, the NSA, or possibly Mark Zuckerberg, and it's fairly certain to alter the ads you'll see alongside those searches. Twitter is the only online company of that group that doesn't participate in the PRISM program, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better option for sharing your outrage over the intrusion than any other alternative.
Your data does not belong to you anymore. Government leaders didn't collude together to deem it so one day. It's taken decades of conscious decisions by millions of people to create a culture that values access over privacy and that will trade identity for information.
When interstellar exploration ramps up, it'll be corporations that name everything
The great irony of all this outrage is just how much of it was vented on platforms designed to spy on everyone for a profit. What is Facebook, if not a vast database of people, movements, events, and opinions? What is Google, if not a vast database of what everyone's looking for and who they've been talking to? The things people do online are tiny little specks of data in an enormous universe of information. Over time, the Facebooks and Googles of the universe will gather those little data-specks together until a galaxy forms, with big coherent chunks (not unlike stars and planets) made up of specks from your life mashed together with the specks of millions of other people. And then they'll sell it all to advertisers, one chunk at a time.
Any reasonable expectation to privacy was abandoned when people allowed their lives to become specks of data for sale. That sale was authorized when everyone demanded that the Internet structure itself in a way that allowed maximal access at minimal cost. What appears free on one end of the equation is bound to have costs on the other. You can have unlimited access to a universe of information, or you can have privacy, but you can't have both.
Of course, over time, the technologies that enable this transaction improved to the point where those in control of it could look at any given bit of information about any given individual any time they wanted.
Earlier this year, digital security expert Bruce Schneier wrote an article similar to this one for CNN. The article garnered 26,000 Facebook likes and nearly 3,000 comments -- each little speck of data providing Facebook, Google, and CNN with a bit more marketable value in exchange for Schneier's "free" and ultimately futile warning:
The Internet is a surveillance state. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we're being tracked all the time. Google tracks us, both on its pages and on other pages it has access to. Facebook does the same; it even tracks non-Facebook users. Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) tracks us on our iPhones and iPads. One reporter used a tool called Collusion to track who was tracking him; 105 companies tracked his Internet use during one 36-hour period.
Apple, too, is a part of the PRISM program. It's a relatively recent participant compared to Facebook and Google, which have both been providing data for over five years -- and an unwilling participant, if its flat denial of any knowledge of the program is to be taken at face value. Facebook and Google (the only other companies to speak publicly as of this writing) also flatly denied knowing anything of PRISM, let alone participating in it. It would be nice to give these companies the benefit of the doubt, if security lapses were not so common, and policy changes not typically made to tear down what's left of the wall between your life and their servers, rather than to rebuild it.
But let's give them the benefit of the doubt anyway. Maybe the government really is snooping into the great galaxies of personal information without Apple's knowledge or Google's consent. This is not exactly new. USA Today broke the news of NSA phone-record snooping back in 2006. The similarities between that scoop and The Guardian's were enough for National Journal to put together a "this or that" article to see if readers could tell which quote was from which year. Maybe the same thing will happen in 2020. Maybe the data will come from the chips implanted in your brain or the eyePhone jammed into your cornea, giving the NSA moment-to-moment knowledge of your health and vital signs. Who knows? Whatever improves on the consumer end is bound to be matched with improvements to the data-collection infrastructure on the other side of the equation. The only reason snooping seems more pervasive in 2013's revelations than in 2006's is that the technology behind it keeps improving.
My previous privacy-related articles noted examples of government snooping throughout 2012, including NSA "wiretaps in [AT&T's] switching buildings, through which much domestic data traffic flows, and at its satellite-receiving earth stations." This was to be run through -- surprise, surprise -- the very same data center in Utah at the heart of the present NSA snooping controversy. This was over a year ago. I wasn't the only one writing about it, and I had no exclusive inside scoops. The only reason anyone should be shocked today is if they simply were not paying attention. The fact that the scope of the snooping was broader than many people thought only means that most people underestimated the government's ability to leverage the same sort of technology that Facebook, Google, and the rest use to harvest personal information every day to sell advertising. The processor in the latest iPhone isn't the only thing that's better than it was a year ago.
It doesn't matter whether or not the gatekeepers cooperate with the government. It doesn't matter whether or not it seems outrageous that the government can watch what everyone types in real time. Citizens have never demanded that the United States government stop spying on them by casting their votes and raising their voices. Voters never tried to pull the levers of data-driven power back in their own direction. In other countries, such as Egypt or Libya, where citizen uprisings toppled known spy regimes, they vastly underestimated the ease and the appeal of establishing a new spy regime in its place. Information is power, whether it's in corporate or government hands. The only way to restrain that power is to stop offering up information, and in a world where nearly every transaction or communication is digitally mediated, it's all but impossible to stop.
The downside of a connected society is that it's no longer an anonymous society. If you feel angry that the government might be watching your every move, ask yourself this: Would you give up access to the world just to reclaim your privacy?