Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

We've Entered the PRISM

The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers have just blown the whole web privacy debate into a new dimension. They obtained a top secret document which suggests that the National Security Agency in America has direct, back-door access to several major Internet services.

From Google to Yahoo, Facebook and others, the 41-slide PowerPoint presentation would seem to show that the US government has unilateral access to a massive array of data about web users.

Although highly classified and marked "NOFORN" (meaning it is not intended to be shared with any foreign nationals), the presentation was somehow leaked from the NSA and both newspapers claim they have verified its authenticity. The program's secret title is "PRISM".

So what does this mean? For one thing, it shows how the US intelligence services appear to have evolved a method of gathering information which allows them to completely overstep the natural, legal procedures which law enforcement agencies would usually employ during an investigation. There is no need for applications or warrants, the NSA appears to be saying that they can simply jack into Facebook's servers and download whatever they want about a given user's account and site history.

"In a lot of ways I'm not even surprised that PRISM exists"

Major technology companies contacted by The Guardian and Washington Post have denied any knowledge of PRISM which is, perhaps, unsurprising. In a lot of ways I'm not even surprised that PRISM exists. The technical resources of the US government are unfathomably vast, as explained in this incredible Wired feature from last year.

Now that we have this (amusingly poorly designed) presentation on PRISM, a big question has been raised not just over the apparent evaporation of due process but also the implications of having access to all of that personal information. What does it mean that a government potentially knows (almost) everything you've said or done online?

In 1939, W. H. Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen" was published in the New Yorker. It's a brilliant and somewhat chilling piece of satire written alongside the rise of fascist dictatorships in Europe and, indeed, penned by a man who somewhat detested bureacracy. In Auden's poem, an unknown citizen is spoken about by an anonymous narrator - who we may take to be a government official or civil servant (or even a personification of government itself).

"He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community."

This is how the poem opens. It continues to list various pieces of information that official records show about the unknown citizen - including that he owned many technological devices like a fridgidaire (early refrigerator) and a phonograph. But the poem's final lines hint that, despite this wealth of information, the government's knowledge about who the "unknown" citizen really was is severely limited:

"Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard."

Those fundamental questions, the evidence for which is necessarily abstract, are waved away. The unknown citizen fulfilled his duties to the state - that, the voice in the poem asserts - is all that matters.

I thought of this back in April, following massive Internet interest in the social networking profiles of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Chechnyan emigrant accused of carrying out the Boston bombings with his brother Tamerlan.

Quartz hit the nail on the head when they published a piece entitled, "We know when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sleeps." Having access to all of Tsarnaev's tweets gave the public - and intelligence agencies - the possibility of mapping when Dzhokhar did and did not tweet, thus suggesting that the blanks indicated periods of absence such as sleep.

But as Quartz insightfully pointed out, all of Dzhokhar's tweets don't really tell us anything about why he may have wanted to bomb the Boston marathon, or what he thinks about when he is alone: "These digital details don't connect the dots; they merely draw the dots. They offer trivia but not insight."

"Dzhokhar did, in fact, tweet about his dreams"

We know when he sleeps, but not what he dreams. Though in an afterthought at the end of their piece, Quartz admitted that - on occasion - Dzhokhar did, in fact, tweet about his dreams.

And it's that subtle point that changes everything. Once enough content from our lives is uploaded and accessible to service providers, app developers, criminal hackers and the government, then there really is no turning back. Somewhere, and I do not know exactly where, but somewhere there is a point at which the information we provide, must reach a critical mass of sensitivity.

And yes, our dreams are actually accessible, as Maxine Sherrin pointed out to me on Twitter yesterday. Not just because the technology to record them has been developed, but that there are public apps where we write them down too.

What I wonder now is where that critical mass of information lies and what a government can do once they own it. Google yesterday proudly announced that their algorithms can predict whether or not a film will be successful with an astonishing 94% accuracy. And that's just from analysing public search data. If they had a large data set full of more sensitive information about you (which, of course, they do), what might they be able to predict about your life? Are you free? Are you happy? The question now, may be not quite so absurd.

And that is my point here. That we, perhaps, have just entered a period in which the satirical wit of Auden's poem suddenly falls flat. An era when government data about us is no longer lo-fi and plainly statistical, but so rich and detailed that the things we always assumed remained untouchable are safely within their reach.

"This is unprecedented militarisation of domestic communications infrastructure"

As Jameel Jaffer, director of ACLU's Centre for Democracy said to The Guardian: "The NSA is part of the military. The military has been granted unprecedented access to civilian communications. This is unprecedented militarisation of domestic communications infrastructure."

After all this time, after all those privacy campaigns and debates about cybersecurity, all we really know is that intelligence services' knowledge about our online activity may well, from now on, be effectively total.

We are still so far from knowing how that may or may not change our lives, endanger us or create completely new privacy issues. As I hinted above, though, it's to be expected. The government can hardly be blamed for wanting to mine, on an unholy scale, the huge resources we have all gifted to them.

They are simply profiting from the mantra that we all tacitly enforce when we funnel our lives into the network: upload first, ask questions later.

Well. Now's the time for questions, don't you think?


Photo: "This Phone is Tapped" by Lotus Carroll. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License. 


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