Judging from talk on social networking sites, few people are terribly surprised -- or too upset -- to discover that the government may have been reading their email.
Reports in The Guardian and The Washington Post that the National Security Agency and FBI tapped into Internet and telephone data may seem like an appalling affront to privacy. At the same time, people have understood for years that Google scans their email to deliver hotel promotions ahead of a vacation they’re set to take, or that Facebook monitors their activity so it can advertise rings to a 20-something planning to propose. News that yet another large organization has been tracking their online activity -- though it’s a government agency, not a private company –- has been greeted with a shrug by many of the very users whose personal data the U.S. has been secretly gathering.
“I think people have become numb to the fact that they’re being watched,” said Alan Webber, an analyst with the Altimeter Group, a research firm.
Webber added he doesn’t expect disclosure of the government’s data-mining efforts will spur users to demand changes in the way companies handle the personal information they collect.
“I don’t think there will be any sort of outcry that would push things in a different direction,” Webber said.” I know I’m sounding fatalistic, but you’re on Facebook, you’re on Twitter, you’re on LinkedIn, and we’ve become numb to giving up our personal information. It’s not that big of a deal anymore.”
When Instagram changed its terms of service to allow the company to feature people’s photos in its ads, irate users erupted in protest online, declaring they planned to boycott Instagram or delete the app outright, while encouraging others to do the same.
“Fire is catching..and if we burn you’ll burn with us,” read a typical Instagram user's reaction.
The nine companies named as participants in the NSA surveillance program, dubbed PRISM by the government agency, have so far escaped that level of outrage. (Some of those firms, including Huffington Post owner AOL, have denied aspects of The Washington Post report that said they provided the government agency direct access to their servers. Other companies named in the report said they had no knowledge of the PRISM program.)
In the 24 hours following The Washington Post story, only about 20 tweets had been posted calling for a boycott of Google over its cooperation with the NSA. There were even fewer tweets from users encouraging others to boycott Facebook -- and many were duplicates of the posts calling for a Google exodus.
On Facebook, there was barely a murmur. Though the companies may be censoring the posts that appear on their pages, Facebook profiles belonging to Microsoft, Facebook and Google together had only a handful of comments about the PRISM affair.
“It doesn't worry me. If you have nothing to hide why care?” wrote Facebook user user Diana Notaro in a comment on a Facebook status update posted by Think Progress, an advocacy blog. “I am in the phone book with my address. I belong to organizations who have my name. I am on Facebook. Everyone we do business with knows our credit reputation. Neighbors know us. The church knows us. Why is everyone so worried? The only thing I would not want to share with everyone is my medical information, but even that is no big deal.”
Others cracked jokes about being watched by the NSA.
"PRISM: Your Gmail, Google, Facebook, Skype data all in one place. The NSA just beat out like 30 startups to this idea," tweeted Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box.
Those troubled by the NSA data mining took issue not with the tech companies -- seen as having been forced to comply with a court order -- but instead largely blamed the Obama administration and the NSA.
“The outrage, by and large, has been directed to the Obama administration and NSA, which is right at first glance,” noted Justin Brookman, the Center for Democracy and Technology's Consumer Privacy Project director. “It’s really hard to say how culpable they [the companies] are. You got what appeared to be a legally and binding court order to do this and not talk about it.”
People worried about the NSA’s data mining can look to the past for numerous examples of times when governments, including the U.S., have used data to oppress populations.
As Webber noted, during World War II, the U.S. Census Bureau handed over census data detailing the names and addresses of Japanese Americans, which was in turn used to identify and imprison Japanese American citizens in government-run internment camps.
Unlike updating the layout of a site, adding advertising to an app or revamping personal privacy settings on a social network, changes that have all sparked massive user outcry, the NSA news “really doesn’t change [the user] experience,” said Webber. The threat to freedom and privacy posed by the NSA appears more abstract than the threat from Instagram changing its terms of service changes, or, say, Facebook redesigning its News Feed, resulting in a more muted reaction from users online. In addition, government officials, including President Barack Obama, have said that the data gathered from Web companies focuses on citizens overseas.
“People don’t fear this unless they understand the long-term implications of this and how the data can be used,” said Webber. “This is one of those things where our freedoms are slowly and methodically being eroded.”