If you reconsidered using Verizon after discovering that the NSA was collecting your phone records, you should probably turn your computer off now. In another stunning development, The Guardian reported Thursday about an NSA program called PRISM, which has been monitoring 9 large tech companies and thus most likely your email.
This program allows the NSA direct access to the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. To put that in perspective, when you're at work and using Google Apps for Business (like I do), it's possible you're being monitored. If you were an early internet user and still have your Hotmail, AOL, or Yahoo email addresses — you're being monitored. If you're purchasing books or music through iTunes, you'd be monitored. Vacation pictures on Facebook? You're monitored.
The worst part of this all is that Congress voted to allow this in the Protect America Act without much of a debate, voting quickly on a Friday in 2007 to avoid being seen as soft on terrorism. That program, which lacked judicial oversight to begin with, has since been expanded into what we learned of Thursday.
While those companies denied knowledge of the program and said they didn't know what PRISM was until this report came out earlier today, the reality is even those companies don't have the best track record with defending users' privacy rights, as shown in this EFF Report. Whether it is not requiring a warrant for content or not telling users about government data requests, it's hard to defend either these companies' individual use of data, or their willingness to share such data with third parties.If data security is frequently compromised on these websites without users being notified, it's an even greater breach of trust when those companies don't know they're also being watched.
Previous scandals such as the Google WiSpy scandal, AOL search leak, Facebook Apps Privacy issues, and iPhone tracking illustrate these companies' desire for more data, lack of respect for users, negligence in managing data, or interest in helping advertisers. They're all guilty of having breached users' trust in the past. And this doesn't even include what happens when all of that data is being tracked by the government.
Now the comments by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Or.) in May 2011 can be seen in context I think most will agree with: "When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the PATRIOT Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry."
I know I am. Though I'm hopeful now that this abuse has come to light, we can begin a serious conversation about privacy rights in a digital age.