Saturday, November 02, 2013

Is the NSA snooping on our emails such a big deal?

This week's column in the Kingston Whig-Standard.

Courtesy of former United States National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden I have discovered that the NSA likely will have hoovered up any number of my 20,000 or so email messages and whatnot else.
The ‘Internet,’ from Facebook to Tumblr to Google+, lit up with posts from outraged users complaining bitterly about violations of their privacy. All sorts of funny jokes made the rounds, from requests to the NSA to please pass on emails someone had deleted accidentally many years ago to other tongue-in-cheek requests to NSA staffers.
The NSA has seemingly snooped on accounts of millions and millions of people all over the world. Amazingly, leaders of countries whose citizens were illegally spied on uttered some perfunctory criticism, but it was clear that they didn’t care — that is until they realized that their mobile phone were also hacked into. The hypocrisy of these politicians is truly something. In any case, free email accounts hosted by major United States companies such as Gmail, Yahoo and others were tapped into by the spy agency. Frankly, given that I am neither a captain of industry nor a significant political figure, I couldn’t care less. And I do wonder whether you should be bothered much either.
What would the spy agency have found in my email account? Communications between me and my publisher, my family, my friends, requests for donations from various political, environmental and other outfits, dodgy emails telling me that I won the lottery in Britain and that I should please pass on my banking details, the list goes on.
Is there anything in that account that I would be deeply bothered about if a computer at the NSA ‘read’ it? Not really. In fact, I knew already that Google is kind-of electronically reading my emails so that it can place its advertisements right next to my messages. Would I share really sensitive information via email with anyone? Say the login to my online banking account? I certainly would not email that to anyone.
The fact of the matter is that nobody actually read any of my emails or the millions of others the NSA downloaded to its servers. All they did was to analyse them electronically for indications of possible terrorist attacks. The agency claims that the information gathered has prevented a whole lot of terrorist attacks. Incidentally information about planned terrorist attacks were reportedly shared with the United States allies.
My point is this: it is pretty naive to assume that an email you sent from an account provided to you free of charge by a commercial provider is terribly private to begin with. Assuming that the information given by the anti-terrorism agency is correct, I’d actually rather have them snoop electronically through my emails than the company that provided me with the free account.
What is a bit disconcerting is how many people in the United States government apparatus alone have access to such sensitive personal information. Lapses can, and do, happen pretty easily. I recall, some 30 years ago, as a student I shared a house with other young people starting out in our respective careers. My housemate worked at a bank at the time. She had access to the bank account details of a good friend of mine. I will spare you the details of a story that should never have happened, except — for the fun of it — it did.
It appears to be the case that about a million people in the United States have high-security clearance and so could seemingly access our personal communications. That does bother me more than a computer ‘reading’ my emails. How many more Edward Snowdens do exist in the vast U.S. security apparatus, and what might they do with the information contained in my emails.
Well, as I said, whatever they do, the odds are they need strong coffee to stay awake trawling through my boring professional and private life. All the power to them. Still, I do think, given that we live in a democracy, that we are entitled to know what is and is not happening on that front. No surprise then that a majority of Americans are in favour of a public inquiry into the goings-on at their National Security Agency.
Of course, you can’t help but wonder whether all of this is really worth American taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. Clearly, enormous amounts of money are being spent on this security operation. It is well and truly unclear whether this is worth the effort. Either way, the country has democratic oversight of its spy agencies, so at least certain elected politicians tasked with democratic oversight of these security agencies know what the money they allocated has or hasn’t achieved — or so one would think. These politicians ought to have been grateful to Mr. Snowden, because his whistle-blowing enabled them to learn that they were actually misled by the United States intelligence chief about the extent of the surveillance undertaken by the country’s spy agencies. In a democracy that is unacceptable. Strangely there was no gratitude for Mr. Snowden, instead his passport was cancelled and he was more or less forced to seek asylum in a quasi-dictatorship, Russia.
We should be grateful to Snowden for putting the spotlight on the operations of these agencies. The bullying of Edward Snowden by the United States government, and the bullying of newspapers such as The New York Times and The Guardian for publishing information about these surveillance programs, are unacceptable. However, I do think we should keep some perspective on the significance of these agencies trawling electronically through our emails. It isn’t that big a deal, that is, unless you are busy writing up plans for bombing shopping centres, schools, and high-rises. If the latter is your hobby, perhaps you ought to consider finding different ways to communicate your nefarious content.
Udo Schuklenk teaches ethics at Queen’s University, he tweets @schuklenk

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