prism-slide-4

This is not a post I relish making, but I feel it’s important that we talk about the NSA scandal here. The wide reaching repercussions not only affect how the business of social media marketing (this blog’s onus) is conducted. It affects everyone dependent on the open web.

There are several problems with talking about this issue with some level of accuracy. First things first, this is a fairly recent issue, and new revelations may and will continue to come out everyday. Second of all, the facts on the story have also been changing. This is in part due to subterfuge by parties involved, however it is also partly the fault of reporters who failed to interpret information correctly, as well as incomplete guidance by the whistleblower.

As much as possible, I’ll try to keep details to a minimum and focus on the main facts that you need to know. After reading this, I would also appreciate if you shared this among friends and family so that they are also informed and understand the full ramifications of this.

What is the NSA scandal?

The NSA, or National Security Agency, is a U.S. gov’t intelligence organization that specializes in intelligence gathering and cryptography,   in plain English, decoding secret messages.

The NSA was recently embroiled in a scandal where it was revealed that it had collected massive amounts of data from private U.S. citizens using telecommunications services in a program called PRISM. It was revealed that the major technology companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple, also provided data to the NSA.

The extent to which these technology companies provided information was the subject of dispute. Early on, Facebook, Google and Microsoft denied providing data. And then it was revealed that all the named companies did provide the information, with the abovementioned making setups to make it easier for NSA to narrow down the required data. The true extent of this privacy leak was eventually revealed in a new report about  Boundless Informant. Boundless Informant is an NSA data mining tool that is able to collect and categorize data by the billions. It collected no less than 97 billion data  worldwide last March 2013.

Why are social media professionals affected by the NSA scandal?

As mentioned above, the big global technology corporations that hold much of the world’s big data, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo, as well as many other smaller tech companies, are American companies. They are beholden to US laws. They can and have been legally compelled to share user data. Not all tech corporations are US based, for example, Baidu is based in China, and popular messaging app LINE is based in Japan. However, the five abovementioned by themselves carry a big amount of the most valuable data.

As David Kirkpatrick has asserted, having all these big technology companies under US jurisdiction, and their data under their control, compromises the freedom of the open web itself.  It affects the way we do business in social media, and yet it goes even farther than that.

Why are we all affected by the NSA scandal?

First, I need to explain how the NSA scandal does not affect us. NSA does not collect recordings of conversations or place bugs and cameras around to monitor us, as made famous by book and film 1984.  Instead, it collects data about us under the surface, that most people would not even know exist, called metadata. This data includes dates and durations for phone calls, http cookies, which are data collected while you use a web browser, and IP addresses.

IP addresses are numerical labels that identify where a computer is in relation to a computer network. They are a necessity to connect to the internet, and in most cases, a fairly reliable indicator of location. By collecting IP addresses over time, Boundless Informant can infer where you work and where you get groceries, what your habits are and where your family and loved ones live.

The Obama administration, who holds jurisdiction over the NSA, insists that their interest in collecting all this data is in identifying terrorist threats. They point to the PATRIOT Act and other laws as proof that this blanket surveillance over all this data is legal. Most of their efforts are exerted to countries in the Middle East, like Turkey, Syria, etc, but the NSA’s tools make no geographic distinctions and have likely already collected data from all of you reading this article now, as they have of me.

It’s also worth noting that UK intelligence have taken an interest in NSA and have, likewise, made use of their services for their own purposes.

Should we be afraid of the NSA?

Yes. Again, it’s important to explain what we should not be afraid and what we should be. So most of us will never have to worry of being hunted down by the NSA, or any other US intelligence agency, or any other government agency at all. The NSA, likewise, will never even touch most of our data, has no interest in it and will never make us of it.

However, they did collect it, without our permission. And they will continue to do so in exercise of US and UK government mandate.

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee says (quoting verbatim)

Today’s revelations are deeply concerning. Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society.

“I call on all Web users to demand better legal protection and due process safeguards for the privacy of their online communications, including their right to be informed when someone requests or stores their data. Over the last two decades, the Web has become an integral part of our lives. A trace of our use of it can reveal very intimate personal things. A store of this information about each person is a huge liability: Whom would you trust to decide when to access it, or even to keep it secure?

What can we do?

For the moment, there is no clear course of action that will lead to the NSA stopping its data collecting practice. Events are still playing themselves out, as the whistleblower behind everything, Edward Snowden, has recently outed himself. Obama was made to address concerns and said he “welcomes the dialogue” but will not sway his course in this matter. As things stand, the important thing is to stay informed on continuing events and to help spread the word.

For more reading on the NSA, I recommend the following articles:

Through a PRISM darkly: Tracking the ongoing NSA surveillance story

Edward Snowden: Why did the NSA whistleblower have access to PRISM and other sensitive systems?

Boundless Informant: the NSA’s secret tool to track global surveillance data 

Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations