It’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of responses to the recent revelations about NSA surveillance activity. When The Guardian and the Washington Post first published their stories on Friday, the news that the spy agency was collecting vast quantities of data from phone calls, emails, chats and other online behavior sent shock waves through both the tech community and the public at large — but over time, the concern seems to have dissipated. Have we lost our ability to be outraged because we’re so used to the idea that we’re being watched?
One of the most tangible signs of this apathy (if that’s what it is) came from a Pew study that was released Tuesday of people’s attitudes towards the monitoring of their activity by the government. As described by my colleague Barb Darrow, over half of the Americans surveyed believed that the NSA’s behavior was “an acceptable price to pay to stop terrorism.” And almost half of those who participated agreed the NSA should be able to “monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks.”
A collective shrug of the shoulders
I confess that the Pew survey didn’t surprise me at all. Within hours of the Guardian and Post stories, there were responses flying through my Twitter stream and on other social platforms that amounted to a collective shrug of the shoulders: We knew this was happening, at least in general terms, most said — so why make such a big deal out of it? After all, the Patriot Act has been around since shortly after September 11 of 2001, and it authorizes a fairly wide variety of surveillance under certain conditions (although even the author of that Act says the NSA’s recent behavior over-reaches what was intended).
Another possible cause of the somewhat apathetic response is that so little is known about what the NSA is doing exactly. The initial reports said that the spy agency was provided with “direct access” to the servers of companies like Google (s goog), Facebook (s fb) and Yahoo (s yhoo) and could get whatever data it wanted — but then the qualifications started, and pretty soon it wasn’t clear what exactly “direct access” meant, or what kinds of data the NSA was permitted to get.
After some follow-up reporting from the Post, the New York Times and the Guardian, it appeared that the term “direct access” could refer to a system set up by the tech companies in question that would essentially automate official requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, providing a kind of secure area or “lock-box” to which only the NSA would have the keys. In other words, something that amounts to direct access by another name.
So one popular response boils down to: “Well, this is all legal and above-board then, so who cares?” — even though others pointed out that the court that approves the FISA orders is secret and has reportedly approved 99.9 percent of all requests made to it (according to other reports, the NSA and others can surveill wide ranges of data for weeks before they even need to get a court order, and other kinds of data such as chats may not even require an order).
We’re used to being snooped on
Part of the problem could be that, while leaker Edward Snowden’s dramatic revelations have gotten a lot of attention, there have been plenty of previous reports about similar activity over the past decade and very few of those have prompted much outrage at all. Former AT&T employee Mark Klein provided some pretty damning evidence in 2007 about how the NSA had set up a “secret room” filled with equipment that the spy agency could use to duplicate whatever data it wanted (using prisms, coincidentally enough) and that story eventually died.
Have views about personal privacy changed so dramatically? And if they have, are Google and Facebook and other “cloud” services part of the problem — or at least part of the reason — for those changes? It’s possible that we’ve become so used to the idea that our online lives are an open book, whether we like it or not, that there’s no longer any point in fighting it. If Google and Facebook are tracking all of our data and metadata in order to serve us ads, what difference does it make whether the National Security Agency is also doing it?
David Sirota at Salon makes a persuasive case for why the NSA’s actions aren’t even remotely the same as what Google and Facebook do — primarily because one is at least notionally voluntary. But that may not make a big difference to many users once the heat of the recent headlines has dissipated.
What is there to be done?
The other complicating aspect is that, even if we were to get outraged about the NSA surveillance, it’s not clear what anyone could do about it. As more than one person has pointed out, it’s difficult to have the kind of “open debate” that President Obama said he wants to have about privacy and security when all of the actions of the NSA and PRISM are classified top secret, as are the court orders they use, and the secret court that produces them. Google isn’t even allowed to say that it gets FISA orders, although it is now trying to get approval to at least mention them.
There are some efforts aimed at pushing the debate forward, including a project called StopWatching.us, which is backed by a coalition of companies and entities — including the open-source Mozilla project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But all it plans to do is send a letter to Congress asking for changes to the Patriot Act and FISA (which some members of Congress are also asking for). There’s no real chance of a “Stop SOPA” type of movement because Google and Yahoo and Facebook are all involved in what is being protested about.
And the final death knell for broader interest in such matters is that the news cycle inevitably moves on. The NSA story is complicated, information about it is fragmented and contradictory, and most of the answers are top-secret and therefore unlikely to ever be confirmed. Not a great recipe for something that’s going to hold the attention of the average reader.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Leuthard