Last night, the Washington Post published a story that said that, thanks to partnerships with nine Internet companies, the NSA is able to “literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”
The Post said it had leaked documents that showed Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple all voluntarily allow the NSA to have direct access to their central servers.
There, the Post says, the NSA is able to access supposedly private user images, messages, videos and more.
The Post said the NSA project is called PRISM.
The companies all quickly denied the report, specifically saying that the NSA does not have direct access to their servers.
Then the government came out and said that PRISM exists, but that it is only used to spy on foreigners and that it is lawful and proceeds only under court orders.
Amongst the kinds of people who read the news and care about privacy (probably a minority of people), outrage over PRISM was everywhere.
Fred Wilson, a startup investor who funded Twitter in its early days, spoke for a lot of people when he wrote:
I am shocked that this issue hasn’t become a mainstream political issue. Are we all that immune to it? Is it OK to treat all of your citizens like they are criminals? Shouldn’t the fourth amendment extend to cyberspace?
Wilson is probably right to be outraged.
All this spying is probably wrong.
But there is something we all have to remember.
It’s really easy to say that when you are reading about the choice between spying and not spying on Twitter or WashingtonPost.com and not actually having to make the choice between allowing the government to stop crazy people from blowing themselves up and murdering innocent people.
There was a really interesting passage in a recent New Yorker article about how hard this choice can be for technology companies.
After the company he co-founded, Netscape, launched its Navigator browser, the government insisted that its encryption — which was so strong that U.S. intelligence couldn’t break it — be weakened for foreign sales, so that terrorists and other criminals couldn’t use Netscape’s cryptography. This demand required the company to create a different product for export. Ben Horowitz, Andreessen’s partner, who ran Netscape’s product division, said, “It’s hard to describe what a royal pain the arse this was. We were totally flabbergasted.” Later, after other technology leaders were given classified briefings on how terrorists operated, he and Andreessen realised the Feds had a point. “Maybe they didn’t totally understand all the implications of everything,” Horowitz said. “But we didn’t understand their job either.” Eventually, industry arguments prevailed and the government, which didn’t want foreign competitors to gain an advantage over U.S. businesses, withdrew its request.
Lots of people are pointing out that, in allowing things like PRISM, drone strikes on Americans, or Guantanamo Bay to exist, President Obama is acting a lot like President George W. Bush, even though candidate Obama was loudly against such things.
This screen grab of the Huffington Post front page is getting plastered everywhere:
And again, this observation as fair as the outrage over PRISM. Certainly, PRISM seems wrong – a violation of the kind George Orwell would imagine.
But remember:George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and tech executives like Ben Horowitz have two things in common that you and I do not.
Information, and the power to do something with it.
People with those two things are the ones – the only ones – who have to sit there and decide what’s worse…
…Having a computer algorithm look at naked selfies, confessional emails, and anti-government missives
…allowing a pathological zealot to blow up LAX, killing the people who made those selfies, wrote those emails or organised anti-government rallies.
That’s an impossible choice between wrong and wrong.
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