The NSA’s PRISM Program Has Been Deemed Unconstitutional. But Will Anything Change?

As you may have heard, yesterday a federal judge ruled that the NSA’s PRISM program, which collects and mines metadata on anybody the NSA has “51% confidence” is a foreign national, is unconstitutional. The judge is waiting for the government to file an appeal before shutting the program down, and this may go to the Supreme Court. But it’s worth asking whether this will yield real change, or is just essentially political theater.

The Larger Problem, Politically

Here’s a fun game you can play: Find a politician railing against NSA surveillance, their political party doesn’t matter. Then see where they voted on the Patriot Act, the law that made all this NSA spying possible in the first place. You’ll find a lot of people who happily voted for the act and its renewal are suddenly very huffy about, uh, the consequences of the law they passed, which they were warned about repeatedly, by members of their own party.

For example, a huge part of the problem is that, while government organizations are spying on somebody, anything they incidentally collect while doing so is something they can keep. That means if you’re on your phone within a three-block radius of a suspected terrorist, whoever’s listening can record and file your conversation… and use it at a later date, if they so desire. Some politicians are, to their credit, aware of this, but most aren’t.

The Larger Problem, Socially

The second problem is that there is no law on the books keeping the government from looking at your Facebook. Which they’re probably doing, right now.

The reality of the situation is that we have, without bothering to look at what we’re doing, completely altered the nature of “privacy” in the modern world. Stuff we wouldn’t know about ten years ago from casually knowing a person, from music tastes to breakups, is now easily accessible public knowledge. Even if your profile is private, it’s still easy to paint a portrait of you in “negative space”, and besides, making your profile private doesn’t mean social media companies won’t sell your information to anyone who wants it, and that includes the government. Much of PRISM, it turns out, is just buying private databases, and making it impossible for the government to do it won’t mean anything if they can just buy it from companies doing it with our consent.

Realistically, we need to have a cultural discussion about privacy: What it is, what’s private and what isn’t, and where the line needs to be drawn. It would be nice, for example, if Facebook was forced to be more transparent about what it hangs onto and who it sells what to; it would also be nice if private corporations had to abide by the same rules as the federal government for data collection.

Until both these things happen, it’s safe to assume that there’s more known about you than you think. And that we, as a country, need to define privacy, or have it defined for us.