PRISM: It's just the tip of the iceberg

A private entity using our data for commercial benefits is infinitely more dangerous than a government entity overseeing operations with a defined purpose of internal security oversight, says Sriram Balasubramanian

The Snowden showdown seems unrelenting and has kept the tensions high in the United States.

Beyond the shores of the Americas, this has raised a wider debate on the privacy issues relating to the internet. While it is important for stringent privacy laws, at times it baffles me as to the alarm exhibited by people over these allegations as if they were not aware about data privacy issues all this while. Is the internet supposed to be a resource for the world? Is data scooping an issue only with the United States government or with all private corporations?

To get a perspective on the entire debate, one needs to understand the origin of the internet. The Internet was created by the US military decades ago for its own military usage. Over time, this evolved into a giant system for the world, especially post the early 1990’s; it became the epicenter of the flow of information across the world.

The medium per say has now become the oxygen of life literally across social constructs; be it human beings or giant organisations, nothing can survive without the internet. All through this phase, at no point of time, was humanity told that you own the internet. Humanity embraced the internet with the assumption that data was safe and secure, and with the assumption that “if everybody is using it, why cant I?”

Anyone worth any amount of salt in technology know-how would know that the internet is as insecure as being robbed on the streets of Delhi. The reaction by the citizenry with heaves of sighs at the revelations by PRISM reflects a deep sense of foolishness and naivete. It is extremely naive for one to believe that you didn’t know you were being watched. Come on, didn’t you know that there were hackers who could hack into your emails? Didn’t you know there were people who could access your history? Didn’t you know that if I google your name, I could literally bring out everything about your life? The fact of the matter is that Google and Facebook know more about you than you yourself, which is a more worrying than other things.

When the state machinery oversees your call details, there is at least a particular purpose to it in theory; it wants to maintain high standards of internal security. On the other hand, social networking sites and search engines have access to all the data in the world, it could be more dangerous than the state’s control over data.

A private entity using our data for purely commercial benefits is infinitely more dangerous to a government entity which is overseeing operations with a defined purpose of internal security oversight. Agreed, the internal security monitoring system is not a perfect system and there has to be a more refined and robust system to ensure that this data is not misused. There has to be a more transparent mechanism so that the citizens of the country know that they are not stalked but rather monitored for national surveillance. However, I am surprised by the hypocrisy of the people on their reliance on private entities so much. What makes us sure that these companies would not use the data for varied purposes? As a matter of fact, social networking sites’ revenue models are based on the data we provide them. The data analytics done by companies use our data to provide value-add to advertisers, so as to reach their audience through these websites via advertisements. As such, the data monitoring and usage by the companies reflect in a monetary benefit for the companies and nothing for the user.

The same data is as liable here as in the case of the PRISM program. In this case, the insecurity seems even more since the data can be traded with other people for commercial benefits (data trends vis-vis the user data). This is applicable not just for specific companies but by and large most social networking sites and search engines. In essence, even without PRISM, all our data is on the internet to be gathered and data trends are captured. So, why get agitated with PRISM alone?

The normal answer that I get for this question is “how can they access data without my consent?” The act of providing consent to private players to share data makes it legal and mandatory, whereas the surveillance program makes it very eerie and creates an eavesdropper sense of discomfort. In addition, the presence of the state makes people even more uncomfortable since people generally trust the corporates more than the state in most cases. While I acknowledge this point, I think as much as the state is culpable on monitoring, so should the private companies. While we provide them the data, we do not consent or assign them the right to use it commercially, which is what is being done across the online spectrum.

In retrospect, it is important for us to be vigilant about programs such as PRISM and oppose it till a robust and transparent internal security mechanism is in place. However, it is equally important that we recognise that we are monitored at various levels across the internet in various domains. As much as the government systems need to be checked, so too should be private entities with vast data. The reality is such that we could be watched every time we log into our systems. We should be in a position to accept this reality and try to find ways to protect the data while using these websites. It is unfair for one to live in ignorance about private websites having our data for free and groan when the state uses it for critical internal security systems.

Sometimes, it’s better to introspect and understand the nature of mediums before jumping to conclusions. Once the euphoria settles on PRISM, one needs to ascertain our private charity of data to the world is equally as stupid as the PRISM affairs makes us to be.

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