Commentary

Yes, You ARE Being Watched -- And You Want To Be

Please, please don’t tell me you are shocked that the government has been scanning the Internet for intelligence about who among us has the capacity to be very, very naughty. You, Social Media Insiders, most of all. Given the oversharing that goes on routinely among us every day, weren’t we just begging for this?

We can certainly debate whether PRISM -- the formerly top-secret government program that conducts rampant online surveillance -- is right, wrong, or ultimately enough of a protection mechanism against terrorists to warrant the intrusion, but people are worried about privacy? Really? That would be worth fretting about, if people led their online lives as if they actually wanted privacy.

The way some people are reacting, you would think that our online interactions were limited to email, and doing the occasional Google search, activities, that -- while certainly trackable -- happen in spheres that are relatively circumscribed and where sharing is limited.

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But the fact is that much of what we do online is stuff we intend for wide distribution. Witness the case this week of America’s favorite deranged Dunkin’ Donuts customer, Taylor Chapman, who -- upon the tragedy of not getting her receipt -- effectively held up the Dunkin’ Donuts where the transgression occurred using only a cell phone! Instead of saying, “Hands up, or I’ll shoot,” as she filmed her request for free food, she kept repeating: “This is going to get posted on Facebook.”

An isolated incident? Hardly. There’s a long line of much worse miscreants also being surprisingly public about their true selves in the time leading up to their, um, notoriety. Take Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the dead Boston bombing suspect, who left a trail on YouTube that should have, at the very least, indicated that he had a, well, point-of-view. In fact, in many recent criminal cases, there are digital footprints for all to see, if someone could actually figure out what they’re looking at.

And that, in some ways, is the rub. Part of me wishes that the government were better at what they are attempting to do. Not more invasive, certainly, but better at, for instance, separating the foreigners -- who are legal to track -- from the U.S. citizens. So far, they are only at 51% accuracy, which, as John Oliver said the other day on “The Daily Show,” “[is] basically flipping a coin, plus one percent.”

It would also be helpful if the government got better at determining the markers that made a potential terrorist truly suspicious, so they could follow the suspicious folks and leave the rest of us out of it. Trust me, it’s a huge waste of government resources to track my repair calls to Cablevision. If only they were as good at stalking the right people, as, say, Stride-Rite, then we’d be talking!

But, alas, this is what we’re left with: a government looking for terrorists by having to cast a net that is way too wide, because the data, while massive, isn’t fine-tuned enough. After all, they never caught the Brothers Tsarnaev until it was too late.

On the other hand, by giving so freely of our private lives in public, we help prime the pump for government surveillance. If you really thought your communications were private -- and that you really wanted them to be private -- you are sorely mistaken.

2 comments about "Yes, You ARE Being Watched -- And You Want To Be".
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  1. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, June 18, 2013 at 5:12 a.m.

    Bullshit. Here's the maths with some round numbers. Let's suppose there are 1 thousand potential terrorists in the USA, among 300 citizens, and PRISM gives the government a 99% perfect way of spotting them and locking them up. They use it and lock up almost all the thousand potential terrorists (leaving 10 free to kill people), but also lock up 3,000,000 totally innocent citizens. That's about 3 thousand times as many innocent people locked up as terrorists, and five attacks like Boston. This level of accuracy is excellent for marketing, but is totally unacceptable for terrorism. This means PRISM is useless for preventing terrorism (because you get far too many false positives if you simply lock up people who fits the profile of a terrorist), so justifying it on that basis is dumb. As for privacy - damn right I expect my communications to be private. I never agreed otherwise and, at least here in Europe, privacy is the law.

  2. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, June 18, 2013 at 5:14 a.m.

    Errata: "300 million citizens".

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