Latest NSA Revelations and Pew Study on Privacy Concerns - Connecting the Dots

By Peter Bernstein September 06, 2013

It did not take long for my inbox to be flooded by those with encryption solutions to comment on the exhaustive front page story in the New York Times, “NSA Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web,” that is burning up the Internet. As many noted in their comments, even leaker Edward Snowden says that better encryption technologies would help enterprises protect confidential information at rest and on the fly. However, as the article notes, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been subverting even the best laid plans to assure the privacy of communications through a variety of means including by-passing the FISA court, hacking data storage facilities to get at data before it is encrypted, working to undermine encryption standards, and obtaining company compliance.

With the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) coming up next week, there is an interesting question as to who needs to atone. Candidates include the NSA, Snowden, the companies that have acquiesced to NSA demands to conduct surveillance, the U.S. Congress for its lack of oversight, and so on. It is a long list, and don’t expect a public mea culpa from the various parties to all of this. Do expect a lot of hand wringing and finger pointing as this drama continues to take center stage in the debate over the boundaries regarding national security concerns versus the right to privacy.

Image via Shutterstock

NSA revelations raise issue as to whether privacy is dead

Given what could be the catastrophic consequences of what could happen if the government is not capable of keeping track of terrorist communications and the ability to protect us from nation-state sponsored and freelanced cyber terrorism, while the latest revelations are disturbing on one level, they provide relative peace of mind on another. Indeed, part of me gets some comfort from the fact that the U.S. government has the financial resources to attract and keep the talent required to keep tabs on the bad actors and use whatever means, which can be argued justify the ends, to keep us safe. 

On the other hand, what the revelations have raised is a serious question. It is one we all need to contemplate. It is one that politicians around the world are struggling with since it casts doubt as to whether privacy is dead. Is this just an inevitable reality or is there some way we can be afforded what for lack of a better term is “situational anonymity”?

Latest Pew Research is worth a read

Internationally recognized Pew Research’s Pew Internet for Internet & American Life Project is out with a new three part report that is a must read, “Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online.”  I will not go through all of the findings except to note that Pew found that 59 percent of those surveyed say they would like the ability to completely use the Internet anonymously. They also found (with details provided) that many of us already take some type of measure to obscure our identities when online, although we now know that our personal information is easily exposed and we are vulnerable to exploitation from government, hackers and commercial interests.

This led to another finding that:

Asked whether they think current privacy laws provide reasonable protections for people’s privacy on their online activities, 66 percent of all adults said the laws are “not good enough.” Some 24 percent said they provide reasonable protection.

Interestingly, there are not noteworthy differences in answers to this question associated with political or partisan points of view. Tea Party supporters, conservative Republicans, self-described moderates, and liberal Democrats are not statistically significantly different in their answers. 

Not surprisingly those who say they are worried about the amount of information about them online are more likely to say that current laws are not good enough.

In reading through the entire study the unmistakable conclusion is that we are more concerned about our online personal information being viewed and abused by hackers and commercial entities than we are about the government eavesdropping. 

These findings speak to the problem policy-makers are going to have in threading the needle as to what privacy means in the Internet Age. Let’s face it, we want to be safe. We also want free services which are driven by those providing them having permission (albeit under terms and conditions that are now under intense scrutiny) to share our information with third-parties who wish to target us with their enticements. We also wish, according to our circumstances at the moment to have the ability to hide personal information and even edit things that are less than flattering. The problem is these are contradictory by their very nature.

Is privacy dead? The answer is now going to be dictated by externalities like massive and persistent revelations and cyber attacks and by political reactions to these and public opinion. How long it will take is problematic. 

What the online commercial interests are concerned about is where the line gets drawn and how. It is clear in their responses so far—including requests for more transparency concerning their responses to government requests for information— is that they understand there is a relationship between the NSA revelations and future trust in their services as being relative safe havens for us to conduct our personal and professional business. What they understand most is the incredible amount of money that is at risk. It is why service providers are keeping a close watch on what happens as Europe works on more restrictive privacy legislation, as are U.S. legislators. 

The dots may be connected in terms of recognition that the NSA activities and questions of trust in commercial activities are related. What the picture that emerges once all of the dots are connected remains a function of imagination. We can only hope that however things get rebalanced that the final picture is not an ugly as the process that will create it is likely to be.

Edited by Alisen Downey
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