Jason Ogaard: Surveillance vs. civil liberties comes in the techno-age
In the past 20 years or so that I've been paying attention to technology, the things we can do have grown by leaps and bounds.
The computer I used at home through middle school didn't have a hard drive, we booted the computer via a floppy disk (that was actually floppy) and ran programs via a second disk. Today, my watch has hundreds of times the computer power of that computer.
Today our lives have gone digital. No one has a Rolodex for keeping phone numbers; those are stored in our phones and backed up on The Cloud. The most common thing I write on paper is my signature on receipts.
When everything was on paper, it was a lot of work to comb through someone's life. You would have to go through their garbage, follow them around to see what sorts of activities they are up to. Today, social networks do all of that work for investigators. Facebook and Foursquare let you check in everywhere you go. Facebook and Twitter let you share your thoughts with the world. Facebook and Instagram let you share your photos with the world. Pinterest lets you save interesting ideas. There are more, but I think you get the point.
If you have a Google account that you stay signed into, then Google has a record of every search you've ever made on Google.com. All of these sites save your history. Your history is useful for two reasons; 1.) Google can learn from your history and show you more relevant results to you, and 2.) These sites can serve ads that are better targeted to you. Serving ads more relevant to you is more valuable to them because you're more likely to click on the ads, generating them revenue.
The downside to all of this history is that it makes it rather easy for investigators to find out everything about you. All they have to do is request the data from Facebook or Google or Foursquare. During the past few weeks, you may have heard a lot about a program used by the National Security Agency (NSA) called PRISM. On Sept. 11, 2007, President George W. Bush signed the Protect America Act. Part of that act allowed the NSA to start a domestic surveillance program that eventually became PRISM.
You may have also heard the name Edward Snowden in the recent weeks. Snowden is the person that leaked the details of PRISM to the world. The purpose of PRISM is to identify people that are national security threats and stop them before they commit acts of terror around the world. A side effect is that the NSA has logs of everything you do on the Internet. Using secure modes of transmission (https) won't help you because the NSA has the cooperation of Google, Facebook and Foursquare. Furthering the issue is that PRISM is operated under the governance of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The FISC is a secret court, so if the NSA did overstep its bounds and act unconstitutionally, we would never know about it.
A lot of people are understandably upset about PRISM. A program such as PRISM could let a government go down a slippery slope of jailing citizens simply for dissention. A program like PRISM also possibly violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The U.S. government's response to critics is that PRISM has been useful in stopping attacks, stating that PRISM has contributed in at least 90 percent of the cases in which the U.S. was able to prevent a potential attack.
I think it's great that we have a government looking out for the well-being of its citizens. Obviously, in the wake of the Boston bombings, we know that even with programs like PRISM, they won't catch everything. So, I'm not sure PRISM is worth the encroachment on our civil liberties.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: Those that would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.