Internet

Dinner Time Lectures and the NSA

For the past couple of years I’ve delivered what seems the same lecture roughly every fortnight to my kids:

Privacy on the Internet is an illusion. Don’t ever post or sharing anything anywhere you don’t want 1000s, or 1,000,000s of people to read or know. When you’re on the Internet, act like you would if you were in a crowded public place.

I wasn’t warning about this them out of concern some all-seeing all-knowing government program. Instead, my concern for them was about more real, tangible, and nefarious snooping — by big companies who are in business to get us to share more in order to sell that data. Gail Collins perfectly nails it with this line in her column today:

The other side is worried about privacy, but the public is resigned to the idea that some Big Brother is monitoring their communications. After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.

Of course, the drapery company ad makes it all seem so benign. But imagine you tell a friend you’ve got cancer via gmail. An ad is displayed because the advertiser bought the keyword cancer, and it catches your attention. You click on the ad,  and the company that bought the ad now knows your IP address. If they have a lot of data and are clever, they may be able to triangulate and figure out pretty precisely who you are. Somewhere, in some database owned by some company, the keyword “cancer” gets put next to your name, your IP address, and any other data they might have (your LinkedIn profile, your Facebook page, your home address, your detailed travel patterns). Who knows where it ends up.

So all you people shouting from the rooftops now about the NSA — where were you over the last decade as people were seduced into uploading their most intimate details in the relentless pursuit of profit? Or looked the other way when Google started putting ads next to our private communications?

Plus: all that sits between you and the information you send over “apparently” private networks or services is a sloppy or disgruntled employee, or a smart hacker. Spend time with any developer who knows the dark corners of the Internet and you’ll discover that vast swaths of private data are available for purchase, trade, barter. Your life is already for sale, potentially to people with far more disturbing and nefarious motives than our government. Let Mat Honan introduce you to Cosmo the God to give you a flavor.

Which leads me to the NSA and what they’re doing.

For the last 48 hours, my Twitter feed has been in full-on mob mode. Now, I may eventually join the mob. But for now I’m withholding judgment. I want to to know more, learn more. It feels like we’re at the beginning of this story, not the end. And all credit to  Glenn Greenwald for that — he’s done what real journalists do, and that’s going to force us to have a real discussion. And my bet is that Obama will engage; these kinds of debates play perfectly into his cool, hyper-rational approach.

But I’m not entirely sure that debate will play out the way we expect.

Because there are hard questions and tough facts and huge tradeoffs involved here. Try, if you can, to put yourself in the shoes of someone who works at the NSA, or FBI, or the White House. Your charged with protecting people, and there is a worst-case scenario that haunts you every day. The Black Swan event. I’m not talking about garden variety terrorism — underwear bombers, pressure-cooker or pipe-bomb makers, or even plane-hijackers. But instead, some massively devastating event like a nuclear explosion or deployment of a biological weapon or agent. Something so horrible and awful and at such a scale that we can’t possibly imagine it. What do you do?

Now, at this juncture, I know what’s coming — “Oh, sure, there you go terror monger. Just go yell ‘terrorism’ to justify the spying, like Bush and Cheney. Nazi.” And it’s true that one of the most horrible legacies of the Bush administration is the legitimacy of this reaction —  they lied about Iraq having nuclear weapons, and used that lie to get us into a war we shouldn’t have entered. They used scare tactics to justify erecting a monstrous national security state that we have to continue to live with.

But before the Bush administration, the thing that scared the hell out of people in the Clinton administration and the Congress was this possibility of someone getting a “loose nuke” or biological weaponry and using it to devastating effect. Real adults had these very real worries long before 9-11. Serious investigative journalists wrote serious pieces about just this kind of threat, and how, as a country, we were asleep at the switch and not very alive to the threat. Take just take a second to imagine a nuclear device going off in New York City. Are we willing to accept some level of risk of that happening? Or, is the potential devastation of such an event so off-the-chart we should tolerate no risk at all?

Some people may say the risks of this happening are extremely low. The threat is wildly overblown. And that should be part of the debate for sure. For those of you who argue this, I’d like to introduce you to Pakistan, an incredibly unstable country and proud owner of at least 100 nuclear warheads.

But, I hope analysis of the threat is a big part of the debate we’ll have. And that we talk about our options, including how we can or should use the NSA, and what constraints should be put on those efforts so that they’re not misused or abused.

Until all the facts are in, and until we have that debate, I’ll watch Twitter roar but I’m going to withhold final judgment. In the meantime, maybe we should direct some of our energy and focus towards Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo and how they use our data for purely commercial purposes. I suspect that might turn out to be far more frightening.

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