PRISM: Did the NSA kill privacy?

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency. The first use was in September 1966, replacing an older seal which was used briefly. For more information, see here and here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revelations have been continuing to emerge regarding widespread surveillance tactics being internationally deployed by the United States government. PRISM is the codename of the project, which was implemented by the Protect America Act of 2007 that President George W. Bush signed. Their data collection activities remained obscured for years until a contractor employed by the National Security Agency leaked internal documents regarding the invasive system to the public.

The Scope of Surveillance

Because the intrusive monitoring is being conducted under a shroud of secrecy, it is difficult to estimate the magnitude of governmental spying. Federal agents have direct access to any online conversations conducted between Americans and international locations. These authorities have permission to conduct individual surveillance operations on any person for up to seven days before they need to acquire an official warrant. This scenario indicates that the guise of personal privacy has expired.

Logistics Versus Application

The details that have been released about the program illustrate serious setbacks for privacy activists. Fortunately, the public population vastly outnumbers the amount of authorities with access to these surveillance capabilities. Statistically, this means that that are far too many people to be personally tracked. In all likelihood, most people have not been targeted for individual monitoring; however, the story creates an appearance of governmental omnipresence that instills a need for self-censorship. The exposé about wiretapping operations simply confirms the common knowledge that the expression of incendiary rhetoric is dangerous in any arena. It would be naïve to believe that records of online activities were not being stored before the government had access to them. The permanent imprints of internet use were always available; therefore, it was only a matter of time before the legal authorities started accessing the material.

Unequal Privacy

Technically, the surveillance measures have institutionalized extreme privacy for the secret courts that have legalized extensive wiretaps. The United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court operates in a completely classified fashion. They issue rulings that have fundamental impacts on American democracy, but they only conduct closed hearings. Additionally, they issue secret rulings that form the basis of laws that citizens do not know about. The court is comprised of heavily partisan members. This is based on the fact they are all appointed by John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Only one appointee was not a Republican, but the FISA Court is so concealed from the general public that conflicts of interest cannot be thoroughly vetted. These judges are privy to unfettered secrecy while they simultaneously deny the public of rights to their own privacy.

Public Backlash

Privacy still exists, but it has been neglected in favor of flashier technologies that are not secure. Fortunately, people have started returning to conventional methods of communication, which cannot be easily traced. Several organizations are developing secure ways to conduct discrete transactions online, and physical cash may now avoid its inevitable obsolescence. Ultimately, these startling announcements about governmental eavesdropping are generating a resurgence of non-digital media to regain privacy in all interactions.

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