I’m in the business of encouraging people to keep their guard up. I’m always telling people to watch for signs of something that doesn’t feel quite right, take precautionary measures, and stay informed. But even I have to question the tactics some are recommending when it comes to reacting to the NSA PRISM surveillance program leaked by Edward Snowden. In a previous post on this topic, I said it isn’t a black or white argument, but some people are asking you to make it one.
Best-selling author, technology expert and Columbia Law School professor, Tim Wu, has said that web users have a responsibility to quit Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and Skype if it is indeed verified that they have been collaborating with the NSA. In fact, Wu bluntly proclaimed, “Quit Facebook and use another search engine. It’s simple. It’s nice to keep in touch with your friends. But I think if you find out if it’s true that these companies are involved in these surveillance programs you should just quit.” Wu acknowledged that there is still much to learn about this program and admitted it was no surprise that PRISM exists, saying, “When you have enormous concentrations of data in a few hands, spying becomes very easy.”
Of course, the companies in question vehemently deny such complicit cooperation. Google CEO Larry Page stated, “any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said reports of Facebook’s involvement are “outrageous,” adding “Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the U.S. or any other government direct access to our servers.” Yahoo’s Ron Bell stated, “The notion that Yahoo! gives any federal agency vast or unfettered access to our users’ records is categorically false.” Similar statements were issued by from spokespersons for Apple, Microsoft and others accused of complying.
To add fuel to the fire of this debate, top US intelligence officials have stepped forth with their own comments. US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserts the National Security Agency’s PRISM program is “not an undisclosed collection or data mining program” but instead “an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government’s statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information.”
In addition, claims that the sweeping surveillance programs have prevented multiple attacks keep swelling. Immediately following the leak, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers cited one attack that he said was thwarted by the program, but would not give specifics. Since that time, however, there have been dozens of reports of foiled terrorist attempts, from a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange to an attack against the New York subway system, that were prevented because of the surveillance. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said more than 50 attacks have been averted. Alexander also stated that Snowden’s leaks have caused “irreversible and significant damage to this nation” and undermined the U.S. relationship with allies.
No doubt, the debate over the propriety, as well as the effect, of Snowden’s actions will rage on for some time. There will be others who recommend and take drastic actions, such as quitting the Internet giants, for fear of their safety and/or privacy. The key is to keep cool, find the facts and then NOT forget. The biggest risk is that our discomfort will be forgotten in a week when the next big topic arises. You can take the reasonable steps of doing your research, acting in calculated moderation and following through on what YOU feel is important.
John Sileo is a keynote speaker and CEO of The Sileo Group, a privacy think tank that trains organizations to harness the power of their digital footprint. Sileo’s clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and businesses looking to protect the information that makes them profitable.