current events

My expert opinion about PRISM and things, in which I link to stuff

If you’re like me, you use the Internet.

You know, to stay in touch with friends, keep up with the news, consume pornography,  and vent streams of earnest rage-whining and narcisstic self-disclosure, depending on how your day’s going.

And if you’re like me, in the course of all this news-keeping-up-with and friend-staying-in-touch-with, you’ve probably heard of this whole PRISM thing.

If you’re not like me, or you have no idea what I’m talking about, basically somebody (The Guardian originally if Im not mistaken) called shenanigens on the government’s collecting of metadata from Verizon Wireless customers. Then the Washington Post brought the name PRISM into the national lexicon, ‘uncovering’ (more on those scare quotes later) the NSA’s apparently boundless thirst for sucking up and filtering All The Interwebz looking for…bad guys? The government is all up in your business, like K-Solo’s girl’s mom back in the day.

First off, I gotta say PRISM is a beautifully chosen name for this program. Perfect blend of crisp melodiousness and vaguely science-fictional menace. Kudos to the guy who proposed that one in whatever board meeting it was where this stuff gets decided. It’s like, ‘this supersecret program is clearly gonna get leaked at some point, we gotta make sure it gets a cool-sounding name for when it comes out into the open.’

Cool name. But what is it? Apparently PRISM is a code name for one of the many data collecting tools and data processing tools, or ‘signal activity/address designator’ (SIGAD for short), at the NSA’s disposal. And apparently they give each of these SIGADs a number. PRISM is US-984XN.

And apparently this sort of massive data collection has been going on for years.  But this time, who knows why–chalk it up to anxiety over the Bradley Manning trial if you will–with PRISM it seems the shit has hit the proverbial fan, to be diffracted into the myriad shades and gradations of the spectrum of visible light.

On one hand you have David Simon, creator of the tv series The Wire, and as such someone who knows him a thing or two about surveillance. He made some fairly reasonable-sounding points about programs like PRISM and their “legitimate usefulness to counter-terrorism as weighed against the actual intrusion on civil liberties.”

He seemed to predicate this point on a sort of world-weary bemusement, (I’m paraphrasing here) like, “Dude, they’ve been doing this shit for years, and you’re just getting all outraged about it now? How cute.” The data is there to be combed through whether we like it or not, he says, and it’s naive to think that the government’s not going to do so if it means (possibly) preventing some sort of attack.

Others have argued that this is just the first step down a slippery slope. As Gawker put it,

It is a classic example of Martin Niemoller’s famous poem come to life: First they came for Al-Qaeda, and I did not speak out because I was not Al-Qaeda; Then they came for the dark-skinned foreigners, and I did not speak out because I was not a dark-skinned foreigner; Then I found out they’ve had access to all of my pornography searches for years now. Fuck.

Perhaps the most eloquent argument, though, appears on Reddit of all places. Scroll down to the third post by 161719 and read it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Then come back and scratch your head with me.

What to do? Fork over great heaping forkfuls of our privacy in exchange for the possibility of maybe preventing like bad stuff from happening? And anyway, is privacy (our concept of it, such as it is) even a valid or useful term to use in the current context?

If it is, and if we do decide to fork it on over, are we ready for the consequences? Have we thought them through to the end?

And if we don’t want to fork that privacy, can we effectively demonstrate or implement that non-compliance? How?

This would be the part of the linkstorm where I link to a page where I found an elegant and dignified solution to the conundrum. Haven’t found it yet, but if anyone reading this has one, let me know.

I guess the real reason I’m writing this is that, now, no matter what I write, I can rest assured that somebody, somewhere out there is going to read it.

So whoever the data analyst is, sitting at their desk making use of the SIGAD numbered US-984XN, thanks for reading.


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