NSA Spying – Musings About the Surveillance State

Much has been written about the NSA / Prism communications monitoring scandal over the last few days, including Simon’s recent post. Many things are unclear, and there are more questions than answers, but these things are clear to me.

Some people defend or trivialize it by saying that actual phone conversations and emails are not being monitored – just metadata. Metadata simply means data about data – it doesn’t mean that it is innocuous or public. The phone “just metadata” being tracked is equivalent to looking at one’s phone bill – numbers called, duration, etc. That definitely contains personal information which raises serious privacy issues. Reminds me of the “it’s just allergies” allergy medication ads.

Another comment that is supposed to make it better is that US citizens are not being targeted by the NSA. Who is targeted doesn’t change the fact that personal information on citizens is being collected and retained. And why is it somehow acceptable to spy on and violate the privacy of people in other countries?

Some ask why it is okay for Google to use knowledge it gains from searching your e-mails to sell advertising, but not okay for Google to pass it on to the government. There is a huge difference. Google serves up those ads without knowing or retaining the identity of the recipient. Privacy principles apply to contextual or behavioural advertising and contextual information (such as Google Now), and we can opt out of receiving it. Privacy obligations limit how long personal information is retained, who it can be disclosed to, and how it can be used. None of those concepts apply to NSA monitoring, and opting out is not an option. The devil is in the details when it comes to privacy, security and surveillance.

Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information that started this, is apparently hiding in Hong Kong, and US authorities are eager to get him back to the US and charge him criminally. If he had done the same thing in certain countries in the Middle East or Asia, people in the US would be praise him as a hero and chastise the government for its retaliation against him. If those countries were doing the same surveillance as the NSA is, those in the US would demonize the state for its unacceptable assault on civil liberties and privacy.

I do not welcome the surveillance state.


  1. Indeed. Take this quote from a Globe and Mail article this week:

    Think metadata is trivial compared to content? Think again. MIT researchers who studied 15 months of anonymized cellphone metadata of 1.5 million people found four “data points” were all they needed to figure out a person’s identity 95 per cent of the time.

  2. To see in a truly graphic fashion how metadata can tell tales, see the link to the “Paul Revere” exercise in David Collier-Brown’s comment to my post on PRISM.