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Friday

Here's my information: Why the NSA's Prism isn't the problem we're making it out to be

Lately, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding the National Security Agency's Prism, a government-run program that has been increasingly acquiring data from a number of tech companies for the past six-to-seven years.  This revelation, brought to The Washington Post and The Guardian by former government employee Edward Snowden, has been met with substantial criticism by the general public, notably in the name of privacy.  When we're talking about a rebellion in Syria or a collapsing European Union no one seems interested, but the moment a national issue mentions Facebook or Google, suddenly everyone is a well-informed expert on why Prism needs to be disbanded -- immediately.  But while the information is unsettling, I think the discussion we've been having has been an extended knee-jerk reaction -- people are spouting off how horrible Prism is, without considering how unsubstantial to our daily lives it really is.  Here I hope to dispel that reaction.




I agree that the information revealed by Snowden is unsettling.  When he revealed Prism and other data-gathering initiatives going on behind closed-doors, there was this abrupt realization that nearly every online encounter we've been having for the past several years has been monitored.  Not cool, especially considering this is the first we've heard of it.  Who knows what those suits have been doing with our data?  That reaction is the understandable, knee-jerk response to learning this information.  Hearing about it for the first time, anyone who has been online in the past several years will be taken aback.  But now that we've had time to take a breather, it's time to point out a number of reasons why we shouldn't be freaking out or taking a sledgehammer to our computers because of Prism.

The NSA doesn't care about your date last night.  Many people are under the impression that the government is closely monitoring their every interaction.  Every text, every Facebook message, private call, has been stored in a remote server somewhere and is being exploited by some government employee.  With Prism, the government has the ability to do so.  Yikes.  If they wanted to know the name of every girl I have ever pursued, every desire I have ever expressed, all they would have to do is tap into a Facebook or phone conversation between myself and one of my good friends.  Even better, they could embarrass  me by pulling up a few break-up emails and Facebook posts I sent to girls because I was too terrified to handle my issues in person.  You got me there, Obama.  It's all right there, out in the open for them to view and use as they please.  But that's not what they're after.  They're not concerned with how hot this girl is or whether or not she asked me to dance with her.  They don't care that I didn't get her number.  They care if I'm planning on rigging the local buses with explosives because I didn't get her number.  I'm not, by the way.  The purpose of Prism is the continuation of an effort to ensure that 9/11 and similar tragedies never occur again.  The more data they can acquire, the more complete a picture they can paint of the world's online interactions, and the more likely they'll be able to pinpoint irregularities and bring an end to these attacks before they even have a chance to begin.  If you don't have an abundance of interactions and normal online communications to compare them to, you're never going to reliably determine what is regular and irregular.  I may be a tad narcissistic (follow me on Twitter @steven_chaffin), but not so over-the-top that I believe the government has the time or interest to worry about my girl-crazy, collegiate existence.

We're already giving our data away, daily, to those who want to exploit us.  As a piece on TIME points out, we are not unaccustomed to giving out our personal information.  We do it everyday, subconsciously.  My ability to make this blog depended upon my having a Google account.  Thankfully, I was already logged onto mine.  That means that at some point along the road, I gave Google some of my personal information and gave them the right to monitor my internet access, and even my location.  It's really cool that I can Google "weather" and Google somehow already knows that I'm in St. Louis.  Scary, but convenient.  Just like Facebook, Google knows what I'm interested in, the websites I frequent, the news stories I read, and where I am right now.  Any website you've registered on, bought something from, or even visited, probably knows a thing or two about you.  Frighteningly enough, many you haven't visited have probably acquired data on you.  This reality became more surreal for me after I had downloaded a few songs from The Neighbourhood on Spotify.  I tend not to pay attention to ads, but the next day it seemed as though 75-percent of the ads I was viewing were featuring something related to The Neighbourhood.  Coincidence?  Not in the slightest.  Not only are we giving our information to companies in the name of convenience, but we are indirectly giving it to a whole slew of other companies in the process.  Usually, we're completely oblivious to it happening.  If you've used the internet in the past seven years, you're guilty to giving your information to exploiters.  Who cares that the government has it, too?

Privacy and freedom aren't synonyms.  I've witnessed a number of people marking Prism as the end to our freedom.  "The government is infringing on our freedom...!" people shout at the top of their digital lungs.  Put simply, this isn't true, and very little explanation is necessary as to why.  The fact that Prism has existed for over half a decade is proof of this.  If we were losing our freedom, we'd know about it.  Suddenly the internet would become restrictive, we wouldn't be able to talk to certain people or partake in other law-abiding activities.  But this isn't the case: We've been able to resume our digital communications unaffected, completely unaware of our being monitored 24/7.  We were put through no inconvenience whatsoever.  So while our privacy is being infringed upon, albeit not in the commonly thought of sense (see point #1), our freedom is entirely untouched.  If Snowden hadn't pointed Prism out to use in large, red, capital letters, we'd all be resuming our lives as though the internet is completely free and safe from government infringement.

Prism, in a nutshell, is not as frightening as people think.  While we are losing a degree of privacy, the people we're giving our information to are completely apathetic towards 99.9% of our communications.  If you consider the time and effort it takes to sift through the world's communications, you'll quickly realize that they don't have time to focus on any one detail.  Your talks, your reading of this article, is only a infinitesimally small blip on a much larger map.  So keep talking about your personal lives and sharing your deepest darkest secrets over Facebook and Plus. Unless you're planning something highly illegal, Prism doesn't care about you.

This shouldn't be the end of the discussion, though.  While Prism isn't necessarily harmful, there is an apparent problem with the way that the situation has been handled.  Why did the government opt to do it in secret?  If you're going to take my information, fine, but at least let me know you're doing it.  Moreover, Google and Apple's initial denial of any involvement is a further sign that there is too much secrecy and behind-doors mentality for the public good.  Thankfully, the public outcry seems to be teaching them a lesson or two.

Continue the discussion in the comments section below, and follow Steven @steven_chaffin on Twitter.

Updated Fri, 7:15pm CST -- Minor editing flaws resolved.