Posted by: JDM..... | June 12, 2013

“2001 Space Odyssey” gave us HAL…

NSA and Google now give us P.R.I.S.M….

The news story was discussing the recent exposure of the National Security Agency’s electronic spying program known as P.R.I.S.M. (“Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management”), which sounds like part of a bad plot from the old Get SMART television series.

No technologist interviewed for this story believes the NSA simply vacuums up every piece of data from all tech companies. Despite advances in storage and transmission speeds, that would still be technically challenging and probably unnecessary. Why recreate Google when the agency can just ask Google for the data it wants?


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That’s not particularly reassuring. In fact, it begs the question “just how much personal information do Google and other sources collect and retain?”

Despite a flurry of damage control activity by NSA, Google, and other parties of interest, it boils down to a lot more than just a pile of innocuous ones and zeros, although nobody is yet sure what that really means. What we do know is that a lot of people, at least among those over forty, are concerned. Younger generations have only read about the McCarthy era, the sixties, the Nixon scandal, and other less than stellar moments in our history. They grew up with digital technology and the perpetual connectedness sans boundaries as the norm. For them, being part of multiple interconnected databases is considered an asset rather than a liability.

Somehow, we must parse the caution of seniority to separate wisdom from undue fear and anxiety, and the risk-taking adventurism of youth to identify what is brilliance and creativity and that which is little more than reckless social bungee jumping.

I cannot speak well to the latter, as my credentials within that population expired many years ago. My days of “flying airplanes, motorcycles, and Buicks upside down”, so to speak, are long gone. I can, however, generate some valid opinions from the perspective of one who has experienced that sort of behavior and gained knowledge thereof whether emerging unscathed or summarily scathed.

I don’t subscribe to the more popular conspiracy theories of those alarmed to the extent that they have taken to living in bunkers, wearing camouflage everything, and stockpiling food and ammunition. On the other hand, the “my country, right or wrong” mantra of my father’s generation was beginning to derail before I finished college, joining Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy in their Dimension of Innocence. I’ve seen enough human failure to recognize the potential for harm, and I see a lot of it in the damned if they do, damned if they don’t atmosphere of dealing with international terrorism, and in the rapidly expanding dependency on an increasingly centralized and empowered federal government, among other things.

I don’t like the presumed role of decision maker and surrogate brain cells being claimed by Google and other social media. Computers making decisions for, and directing the lives of, human beings was, until recent times, the stuff of science fiction, but it is now quite real. If I send an e-mail to a friend via a Google “g-mail” account, Google computers scan the message for key words and demographic clues, and within the blink of an eye, selected ad content and “suggested areas of interest”, tailored for me, invade my screen at every turn. Google’s rationale is a desire to make my use of their product a more pleasurable experience. Google’s purpose, however, is to lead me down a path deemed statistically most likely to produce the most “hits” and therefore the most income for their corporation. I don’t fault them for that. Business is about making money. I do, however, object to their methodology, including their presumption of the right to collect, trade, store, manipulate, in fact to do whatever they please with my personal information without my permission or knowledge. The “please and thank you” system of values I was raised with has been replaced by the modern “opt out” mentality that dictates one can do just about anything one pleases without regard to personal boundaries, or even of Basic traditional courtesies, until and unless the target of their shenanigans dares to attempt a carefully constructed maze leading to the opportunity to “opt out”. Needless to say, if the hapless subject fails to figure it out and arrive at the desired Opt Out goal, all bets are off.

Google is not the only “social media” playing the game, but it serves to exemplify the process going on, and the potential for significant and harmful impacts on our society and our way of life is very real. The marriage, whether official or tacit, between such commercial concerns and the activities of government compounds both the potential for and the severity of any consequences that might develop.

The primary role of our federal government is to protect us from foreign and domestic enemies, and to handle business not otherwise designated as the province of the individual states. We have lost sight over the past 237 years of what it looks like when the government itself begins to take on some of the characteristics of potential enemies. The foundations of our system of government have been continually tweaked and adapted, as they were designed to be, sometimes wisely and sometime not so wisely. Over the past half century, the process of tweaking and adaptation has on the one hand attempted to improve the equity of formerly marginalized populations within our citizenry, but on the other hand has done so in ways that overstepped boundaries and now need to be corrected or undone altogether.

Meanwhile, the global environment has changed considerably, and the United States has almost continuously been militarily involved in those changes to varying degrees. “Defense” has been redefined, as has the art of conflict. The world is a dangerous place, and it is in our best interest that our government fulfills its role of protecting the people from foreign and domestic enemies. However, how that is done will determine whether that mission is carried out successfully, or whether the alleged foreign enemy is any more of a threat than the unacknowledged one within.

Domestic spying is unacceptable. NSA must find a different way to carry out its duties without violating the trust and sense of security of the people who employ it for that purpose. Cooperation with government can be accomplished through voluntary loyalty built upon earned trust, secretly through indirect means of questionable legality and morality, or by force. It has been a long time since the first option was enjoyed both by the people and government, the third option has never been suffered except on a limited basis during wartime, and the second option needs to be eliminated as a possibility because human nature dictates that it must eventually be abused and mutate into a wholesale expression of the third option of force.

 

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