Last week's revelation of the NSA's PRISM scheme, a pervasive Internet surveillance system facilitated by nine major U.S.-based Internet content providers (the PRISM Nine) has left the online world reeling. Firstly with the realization that we are facing a surveillance system broader and more onerous than the nightmares of dystopian fiction, but also that nine companies which we came to trust with our personal data could so overtly betray us.
Given the enormous value of Americans' personal data, efforts to steal it and use it against us are nothing new, and online companies have long struggled with keeping private data safe. Yet where we might shake our heads at the credit card company that recklessly loses its' password list to hackers, we must be doubly offended by Google, Apple, Microsoft et al. for giving all this and more away voluntarily, and we must make it clear that this will never happen again.
I'm not under any illusions that even with this knowledge of their complicity in our surveillance these companies are going to vanish overnight. They are far too integrated into our lives, and it will take years before everyone has moved on to suitable replacements. What I hope though, is that rather than trusting in these new content providers' good intentions we demand that they hold themselves to higher standards than the PRISM Nine ever did. Like doctors, the companies we trust with our data need to commit to a sort of Hippocratic oath.
From Apple's legendary 1984 commercial to Google's "don't be evil" motto, the PRISM Nine have all pulled the wool over our eyes in one way or another. It is high time that companies level with us on the specifics -- most importantly where they stand on spying on us.
It is 2013, and government abuse is no longer confined to the domain of fiction. The Internet is part of our everyday lives now, as vital as electricity or clean air to many. People must be able to be as secure in their online activities as they are in their bedrooms, and as offended when governments, and their corporate facilitators, infringe on our privacy in the one as in the other.
The Internet has proven itself to be one of the greatest inventions in human history, and a powerful force for liberty the world over. It has provided a voice to the voiceless, and information to the uninformed. Yet now we are coming to learn of its grim potential as a system of control, when abused by the NSA and others. We mustn't fear that danger, for positive change often includes risk, but we must stand firm that this abuse will not stand.
For future content providers, the demands to safeguard our privacy will only grow. There will be new developments impossible to foresee, and new threats we can only imagine. We can't ask these companies to be omniscient, but we can, and indeed must, ask them for one simple thing: that their services will above all else enhance our freedom, not just enhance the means by which we are controlled.
First, do no harm.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.