The recent spill of a massive government surveillance program in the United States has brought up a number of questions about the relationship between technology and privacy. While the myth of online privacy has been debunked numerous times, it's a surprise to many that the biggest threat to privacy may come from government itself. Can we expect privacy in our communications regardless of the tools we use, or has this become an outdated concept in a world where information has taken on a life of its own?
The man behind the leaks, Edward Snowden, says he leaked information on government surveillance systems as a way to safeguard privacy and individual liberty. Snowden's story could come straight out of Hollywood, full of government secrets, international intrigue, and spy networks that stretch around the globe. Unlike the movies, however, it's not just the bad guys who are being spied upon, but potentially anyone who has a telephone or uses the Internet. According to Snowden, "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded," by the National Security Agency (NSA), both in the United States and beyond.
Millions of people around the world share personal information daily on the Internet, using search engines like Google and social networking platforms such as Facebook. According to the recent revelations, which the NSA have owned up to in part, many of the world's largest tech companies willingly share data with the government on a regular basis. It has been discovered that the PRISM surveillance program has been operated by the NSA since 2007, under the supervision of the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Several tech companies have been identified in the program, including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, AOL, Skype, and Apple. After Snowden leaked the information to The Washington Post and The Guardian in June, President Barack Obama came out saying "this is not a situation in which we are rifling through, you know, the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else", adding that the practice is "a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our people."
While the important issue of national security is being used to justify this program, lots of people are rightfully concerned about the narrowing links between private tech companies and the government. Even though the NSA are almost certainly unconcerned about your latest email to your mum, the mere possibility of personal surveillance and total lack of transparency shown by the American government is making a lot of people worried. The 'for the good of national security' answer is simply not good enough for many people, especially in the wake of other U.S government cover-ups and leaks during the last few years.
In one interesting fact that illustrates how many people obviously view the PRISM program, sales for Orwell's 1984 are up 5,771 percent following the scandal according to the LA Times. While the fear-based conspiracy theories circulating online may draw a very long bow, there is no doubt that many questions remain unanswered. Is lack of privacy simply the price we have to pay for unbridled access to information and seamless global communication, or should we expect more from the people behind the curtains?