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Oh my God! The government is doing … exactly what we thought it was doing all along

NSA Data Transferring

As you must have heard by now, reports out this week reveal that the United States government is spying on Americans’ communications data.

The first report, published by the Guardian, shows that the National Security Agency (NSA) requires Verizon to hand over all call records on an “ongoing, daily basis,” according to classified documents obtained by the U.K. news outlet. The records do not contain the contents of phone conversations, but do include data about who called whom, when calls were placed and from where, and how long those calls lasted.

There is a difference between hearing about a dead body, and seeing one right in front of your eyes.

The second report, from the Washington Post and the Guardian, shed light on another top-secret surveillance program, called PRISM, which is operated by the NSA and the FBI and gives these government agencies “direct” access to nine U.S. Internet companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. According to the Post, this access allows U.S. spies to obtain “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs” sent over the networks of these companies by foreign nationals (but not Americans) – all in the name of protecting us from terrorists, of course. PRISM is so powerful, says the Post, the NSA “quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

All of the companies – save AOL and PalTalk – have denied knowing about the massive spying program, and say they do not provide the government with access to their servers. (Some speculate that the “direct” access is through Internet service providers, not the companies themselves, which is potentially corroborated by a report from the Wall Street Journal, which reveals that ISPs were roped in as well.) Update: The New York Times reports that these companies not only knew about what was happening, but complied with the government’s demands to allow access to our data, and were legally obligated to deny that the spying operations even exist. James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, President Obama, and various Members of Congress all assert that the data collection programs are entirely legal and necessary for maintaining national security.

My response to all this? No shit.

And I would bet that’s your response, as well. We all assumed this kind of surveillance was happening. Now we know that it is. Are we disgusted? Maybe. Shocked? Not a chance.

So, will anything change? Will the public suddenly take up arms over violations of privacy – and our privacy is being violated, whether or not you agree that it’s justified – that we all figured was taking place all along?

Privacy died long before PRISM.

I doubt it. As much as privacy advocates like myself, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and many others want this week’s revelations to serve as a shocker that will jump start reform, I just can’t see the general public caring for more than a few moments, let alone doing what it takes to get these kinds of spying practices repealed. In the years since September 11, 2001, we have become both more willing to forego certain freedoms to protect our safety and infinitely willing to share a plethora of details about ourselves on the Internet. Privacy died long before PRISM, and anyone who wasn’t already mourning that loss will not suddenly be called to action.

Of course, there is a difference between hearing about a dead body, and seeing one right in front of your eyes. So perhaps this week will wake us all up to the fact that we have destroyed essential liberties – the right to not be spied on, the right against unreasonable searches and seizures, to name the most obvious ones – in an attempt to maintain the semblance of normal life. Perhaps it will launch a vital public debate about the need for transparency in government, even on national security matters. Perhaps we will all get on the phone with our representatives in Congress and demand that they repeal the laws that made PRISM and all the rest “legal,” or else. Perhaps.

More likely, I believe, is that we will post our outrages on Facebook and Twitter for a day or two. We might even talk about PRISM with our friends, maybe complain a little about the hypocrisy of a country that sells itself as the land of the free, while listening in on people’s Skype calls. And then we will forget, it will all go back to the way it was before these reports surfaced – just good enough to keep us out of the streets.