Photo Courtesy of Gigaom

April 28, 2016

GLOBAL IMPACT | The Global Surveillance Leaks 3 years Later

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When I was a Junior in high school I loved watching this show called Person of Interest. The show (still airing now on CBS)  while for the most part a procedural, was also part sci-fi. In fear of terror attacks post 9-11 the government asked a developer, one of the show’s main characters, to develop a machine that could surveil  everything, everywhere. The machine has access to all meta data regarding your phone calls, emails, facebook messages, tweets, tumblr posts and so forth in order to determine who will be planning or involved with terror attacks so they can be preemptively stopped. So, in June 2013 when the PRISM program leaked I was amazed by a few things:

  • The machine is real
  • Jonathan Nolan (the writer of Person of Interest) is a genius
  • The machine is real
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

Personally, I’m not the type of person to believe that the government is out to get me. I’m not a 1984-esque conspiracy theorist about “Big Brother” with ideas about how the NSA is equivalent to the Stasi, but the fact that the NSA had actually managed to build a machine that could track everything we did- without it leaking on its own- was scary. The realization that my privacy on the internet had always just been a facade, that deleting my history from Chrome did nothing to hide my internet presence, completely changed the way my 17-year old mind thought of the internet. All of a sudden, I wasn’t anonymous. There would always be the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, everything and anything I did on the internet could be connected back to me. That being said, I didn’t really have anything to hide, but for the thousands or millions of others who did, the revelations were potentially earth-shattering. For the thousands of people who cheat on their spouses, the sudden fear that the government could blackmail them was no longer fiction from an Orwellian text, but was now a reality. For the thousands that illegally download under false monikers the fear that maybe, just maybe, they could still be tracked, fined or jailed was now a possibility. So, while I personally wasn’t too affected, I expected some big changes to happen. I expected people to go out and protest for their right to privacy, not necessarily wearing V-for Vendetta style masks as with the Occupy Protests since our government is actually pretty nice, but through some sort of demonstrations nevertheless.

Three years later, I’m a little surprised that the world doesn’t really feel any different.

Back when the leaks happened, 47% of Americans surveyed by Pews believed that the government had gone too far in restricting their civil liberties. The same poll stated that only 35% of Americans believed that the government hasn’t gone far enough to protect the country. This was a massive flip from 2010 when the opposite had been true. This switch in public opinion was  used as justification for arguments to curb the NSA, to call for changes in FISA, and to restore our right to privacy. ACLU representatives, lawyers representing public interest and just plain old people took this as a sign that their voice could finally be heard, that they could evoke change. Politicians like Senator Wyden came out in support of reform and it seemed to the public as if their swift change in opinions would lead to a real change in the decision making regarding mass surveillance. And to a major extent change did happen. In June of 2015 almost two years after the leaks Congress passed a bill which effectively suspended the metadata collection program and revamped the FISA court to also include a panel of experts so it was no longer just the Government’s voice being heard.

This is what everyone wanted, but still it doesn’t feel right. Edward Snowden proclaimed in 2013 that he leaked the files and became a traitor to the United States because he wanted to start a debate at home. He wanted people to go and talk about their right to privacy and make sure the opinion of the public was seen in the decision making of the secretive FISA courts or other congressional offices. He wanted us to regain our privacy. Legislation was later passed, privacy was supposedly restored and the ACLU chalked it off as a victory.

But did he actually succeed?

Another poll done by Pews done in December of 2015 reads almost completely differently from the one in 2013. Now, 56 percent of Americans believe that the government has not done enough to protect the country and only 28 percent believe that the Government has gone too far in restricting civil liberty. This data is actually very similar to a poll done in 2010 which marked historical highs in American opinions regarding the belief that the government has not done enough to protect the country. In the minds of the American people terrorism is still as large a threat as it was immediately post 9-11. The polls are as much a reflection of the state of the world as they are the minds of the American people. In 2013 terrorism at least felt like it was on a downward spiral from the perspective of a kid in the Midwest. In 2016 (and late 2015 for that matter), the world became far more complex. Groups like ISIS have destabilized the Middle East and led multiple terror strikes against the West in Europe. This coupled with the rise of Islam as a religion and massive refugee flows from the Middle East into Europe have created an irrational fear in people that they are no longer safe.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ve come to realize over the past few years that in the face of terror, no matter what we say, we would rather be safe and secure than necessarily free. As Americans we’ll of course to our dying breath proclaim that we want freedom and liberty over everything else, but underneath all that I think what we all want is to just be able to live in a world that is safe for our brothers and sisters, parents, kids and friends. Snowden won in the courts, he won in the press, but his debate never stood a chance from the moment he leaked those files in June 2013. When I was a little kid, my mom used to tell me a lot about how when trust is lost, it sometimes can’t ever be regained. It was a simple lesson, but I think it applies back here. No matter how secure my internet browsing experience may be by the word of legislation or a company’s reassurances, I won’t ever truly feel like I have privacy again. There is always going to be a nagging sensation that I’m being watched, or my information is being stored and with that I and other Americans have just had to accept that privacy might be a dead concept.

Our intelligence sector is really secretive. A lot is kept from us and yeah, we’ve been told publicly that meta-data collection has been put to a halt, and maybe it has. But if it came out that the program has continued (maybe in the same way, maybe in a new altered form), I do wonder what the reaction would be.

Pulkit Kashyap is a sophomore CS & Economics double major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Pulkit loves to watch superhero tv shows, read books on just about anything and swim. Global Impact appears on Thursdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].