PRISM and public overreaction


NSA sealThe news of the past week has been filled with the revelation by an ex-CIA employee of the project called PRISM, in which the government has unfettered access to Americans’ phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, etc, in order to catch threats to national security.

As I suggested in a previous post, Americans have short memories.  Even this close to the Boston Marathon bombing, after which we were treated to the sight of the Tsarnevs killed or captured by police and federal authorities, to the standing ovations of Boston citizens… those same citizens now cry “Big Brother!” and cite privacy issues in our government’s monitoring our communications.

The two things that strike me as the most significant here are: The idea that the government is somehow actually monitoring all of these calls, emails and messages; and the fact that PRISM didn’t just start yesterday.  In terms of the former, people seem to think there’s someone actually sitting in a government desk and reading and/or listening to all of this stuff.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Instead, computers search for key words, phrases and combinations of traffic that suggest plots against Americans, and pass any suspicious data to a few reviewers to process.  In order to directly, physically monitor all of those calls, emails and messages, the government would have to hire so many people that it could single-handedly wipe out unemployment.  Globally.

And to address the latter, PRISM was launched in 2007.  PRISM has been credited by authorities as having provided information that has prevented incidents, for instance, the plot to blow up backpacks in the New York subway system in 2009… just as it was designed to do.  And I’d be willing to bet that if the subway bombing had happened, New Yorkers would have no trouble okaying any efforts the government and law enforcement agencies would have to use to catch the people responsible and bring them to justice.

Despite these facts, much of the American public is critical of PRISM and the idea that it is “spying” on American citizens.  Memories are indeed short.

So, for Americans that are debating the question of “privacy vs security” right now, I’d like to say:

  • Don’t overreact.  PRISM is designed to catch terrorists, not tax cheaters or speeders.  Relax.
  • If PRISM saves a single human life (and, oh yeah, it has), it is worth every cent.
  • This does not make the government over-reaching; it makes them proactive and protective.
  • Remember Boston.
  • Remember 9/11.
  • Remember Columbine.
  • Remember Newtown.
  • Remember Virginia Tech.
  • Remember Aurora.

2 thoughts on “PRISM and public overreaction

  1. Donn

    Steve, this whole thing is such a choreographed side-show. After The Patriot Act, and especially FISA, I am more shocked that any of the “revelations” about the PRISM project is a surprise to anyone. Hell, I have tried to be cognizant of the phrases I use online and emails since 2003. It should be a surprise to no one that the government is monitoring and “data mining” digital information. Including phone records.

    While I am surprised that some people seem to be shocked, (shocked I say!) to learn this has been going on, I am not surprised that the media is running with this as if it were the discovery of the century. That is what the media does best: take a mole hill, turn it into a mountain of inexplicably overstated outrage, and interview the “victims”.

    As you make clear, this did not start this year, or the last 5 years. The same apparatus has been with us… forever. And without becoming overtly political, I can understand why Obama continued the inherited practice. The denial of perfect privacy works at detecting nefarious plots. The last thing Obama wanted to do was cancel the program, have us be hit by a major terrorist act, and then have it come out that he cancelled the “one program that protected us all”.

    We as a society need to quit being outraged by the obvious and long present, curtailment of perfect privacy, and decide where we want to be going forward.

    Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as saying “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    Good words, but like a lot of good words written in the 18th century (2nd Amendment comes to mind) we need to decide if they fit the current 21st century.

    I apologize for the lengthy reply. It is a complex issue.


    • It is a complex issue. And as I recently pointed out on my Facebook page to someone who read the post, and lamented the lack of public oversight, the American public has little excuse for not knowing this has been going on, as you say, forever. I too am surprised when someone says to me “I had no idea!” and have to fight the urge to wring their oblivious little necks.

      The problem, as I said on FB, is much deeper than knowing or not knowing about PRISM. The American public is in permanent denial about everything that goes on in government, and the world at large… from what unrelated legal riders are attached to a bill so it can pass in Congress… to exactly who has access to all that data we willingly put into “the cloud.” We vote, knee-jerk fashion, for our government representatives, then we do not hold them accountable for a thing they do (or don’t do).

      And as long as we continue in this way, the government will continue to do what the hell ever they want—which, in the case of PRISM, is one of the better things they should be doing—and the public will turn a blind eye until the media smells another sensationalist mountain and jumps on that molehill.


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