When I upgraded to Windows 10 a few months ago, there was controversy brewing over Microsoft’s new privacy settings. Concerned users noted that this latest version of Windows sent and received much more personal information than previous versions, often under the guise of creating a seamless experience between devices.
Whether or not Microsoft is using this data to actually improve my time on the computer, to target more relevant ads toward me, or perhaps something more sinister, I don’t know. I honestly just can’t seem to care. I figure that if the worst thing I’ve ever done is torrent James Cameron’s Avatar, I probably have nothing to hide or worry about.
But weren’t we taught not to think that way? Stories like “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” depicted dystopias where indoctrinated citizens give up their own rights and suffered for it, yet we live in a world where government organizations like the National Security Agency (NSA) have been proven to collect encrypted, seemingly private communications from Internet users.
We have a culture that regularly mocks and ridicules conspiracy theorists, while ignoring real clandestine programs that the government is occasionally revealed to perform.
For instance, Project MKUltra, an illegal program secretly run by the CIA from the 1950s through the 1970s. Unofficially referred to as the “CIA’s mind control program,” it consisted of experimentation on human subjects to develop drugs for torture. The program was found to have used forced drug administration, sensory deprivation, sexual abuse, and other forms of torture in pursuit of its goal. We only know for certain about MKUltra because of a Freedom of Information Act request in 1977, suggesting a healthy skepticism and demand for transparency in government is necessary to wrangle the truth out.
As a more recent example, the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, which was leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013, gave the NSA unilateral access to emails, video and voice chat (including services like Skype), and many other kinds of communications and file transfers. Snowden, who was a former CIA employee before he leaked the information, fled the United States and sought refuge in Russia. Considered a hero to some and a traitor to others, his story is just as interesting as the information he leaked.
In April, Snowden was interviewed by comedian John Oliver on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” and the two talked both about the NSA program and why the public seems reluctant to care about their privacy. One point Oliver made was that we may not be technologically literate enough to even know what Snowden’s leaks mean. “Is it a conversation that we have the capacity to have?” Oliver said. “Because it’s so complicated we don’t fundamentally understand it.”
Oliver suggested that if Snowden really wanted to get Americans to care about their privacy, he had to make it personal and shift the focus to how the NSA’s collection can affect individuals. One way of doing that, according to Oliver, was to mention that any private or nude photos people might take of themselves for their significant others could be easily collected by PRISM.
Snowden concluded the interview by saying that “If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much,” alluding to claims by the Bush and Obama administrations that sometimes we must sacrifice a little privacy to maintain our safety.
Even if the data must be collected, it seems like our political leaders could at least be a little more open about it. But as much as I try, it’s hard for me to get passionate about privacy when I have a million other things to do each day. So if you feel the same way, try joining me in this thought experiment the next time you send a sexy Snapchat: Who else besides you and your boo is seeing that picture?
The take: A healthy skepticism and demand for transparency in government is necessary to wrangle the truth out.
Reach writer Alex Bruell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BruellAlex