In the wake of the NSA scandal, the companies described as cooperating with PRISM have gone on the defensive. And the general message seems to be the same: "Don't worry, we don't spy on you — much."
To their credit, every single one of these tech giants has taken (ostensible) steps toward greater transparency since the Snowden leaks. What's more, the data released seems to confirm that some concerns about government spying were overstated.
Facebook, for example, only received about 10,000 requests targeting 19,000 accounts in the second half of 2012. According to Microsoft VP John Frank, "Microsoft received between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts from U.S. governmental entities." In the six months ending in May, Apple only received between 4,000 and 5,000 requests to disclose information. Google cited similar numbers.
It remains unclear how many of these requests relate to PRISM and how many relate to other mechanisms for information release. Nonetheless, given that these four companies handle the personal information of millions, perhaps billions, of people, these numbers are quite low. The chance that your information has been subject to surveillance is negligible.
Still, even if one takes the information at face value, there is still reason to worry. First, there is a seeming contradiction between information revealed by the leaked Snowden slides (which imply that the NSA "collects" information) and information revealed by tech companies. Second, even if government does go through the legal mechanisms described above, what happens if and when government interprets the Fourth Amendment differently?
The entire lives of almost every single one of us born after 1990 are lurking somewhere on the internet, just waiting to be scooped up by prying eyes. In fact, a majority of us have been using services provided by the companies described in the PRISM slides since our teenage years. We use Google to search, Skype to keep in touch, Yahoo to email, and Facebook to socialize. To realize that all the while these companies have been data mining our personal details — and that such details are subject to government intrusion — is unnerving, to say the least.
So what is one to do? Faced with a similar situation, men like Thoreau might suggest that we boycott these companies. But that is impossible. As The Guardian's John Naughton rightly pointed out, the NSA has us "snared." An effective boycott of its spying is basically impossible, because almost no one in the modern world is willing or able to stop using the services provided by every single company under its clutches.
"Don't worry," someone might say. "The NSA only has access to your online lives." Well, in a world where there is fast-closing gap between our "online lives" and our "offline lives," forgive me if I don't find this reassuring.
Many have responded to the Snowden leaks by warning, "Big Brother is coming!" They are wrong.
Big Brother is already here.