A reader writes:
Okay, I really don’t understand. Mike Bloomberg wants to regulate smoking and guns and soft drinks and you rail about how “the man just despises freedom.” Yet when the NSA is revealed to be invading communications records on a massive scale and says “trust us, we’re not actually listening to the content,” you’re content to stand by and yawn. Answer me this: Which is the more basic, existential threat to individual liberty: the right to smoke cancer sticks and buy a Big Gulp whenever and wherever, or the right to have some semblance of privacy when communicating with other people? A quick skim of the Constitution makes it pretty clear which of those would have attracted the interest of its authors.
More interesting to me than the much-publicized phone-metadata aspect of PRISM is the way it allows the NSA virtually unlimited access to anything you have done on the Internet. Gizmodo’s explanation of the program is terrifying:
When the NSA monitors phone records, it reportedly only collects the metadata therein. That includes to and from whom the calls were made, where the calls came from, and other generalized info. Importantly, as far as we know, the actual content of the calls was off-limits.
By contrast, PRISM apparently allows full access not just to the fact that an email or chat was sent, but also the contents of those emails and chats. According to the Washington Post’s source, they can “literally watch you as you type.” They could be doing it right now.
In any context other than this, a backdoor into your computer that allowed someone else to view this kind of data would be considered a computer virus, and the person doing it would most likely be a hacker interested in stealing your identity. The government regularly sends people to lengthy prison sentences for doing that. In the wake of the IRS scandal, which we are told was the work of a few rogue government employees, who’s to say that a few “overzealous” NSA employees aren’t reading things they’re not supposed to read?
Yes, today they tell us the content isn’t being viewed, but the key factor is that it CAN be viewed. At any time. And we wouldn’t know.