The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

The Alternative: Let It Happen





I’ve been talking about resisting change in this column a fair amount, but there’s an alternative to opposing changes in IT due to privacy concerns: do nothing. I’m reminded of a scene in “The Lives of Others” where the main character, a writer, goes into the former offices of the East German Stasi and asks to see his files. If I recall correctly, the clerk brings him box upon box of files detailing years of surveillance conducted on him by the government.

To be clear: the National Security Agency (NSA) is not the Stasi. We are not living in a police state, though one might argue that we live in a latent police state. The more unencrypted data we give to this domestic spying apparatus, the bigger our digital files get. Encrypting our communications could be a valiant effort to circumvent this apparatus, but it’s probably a lost cause when the NSA influences many encryption standards.


























So imagine this: eventually it all comes crashing down. You log in to a government site designed as a surveillance clearinghouse and search your own name. The results are mundane. Once you ordered pizza from a place three degrees of separation from a suspected terrorist safe house in Lahore, Pakistan. Oops. Apparently you looked up sarin nerve gas on Wikipedia multiple times because you have morbid curiosity. Bad idea. These examples are, I would assume, the most extreme in a litany of possible examples. I can’t predict what algorithms might find interesting in my queries or communications because I’m not algorithmic. The trends extrapolated by analytics may not represent any amount of predictive intelligence, but it would be fun to see what the NSA has on you and me. I don’t think the NSA is building a three to 12 exabyte (READ: three to 12 billion gigabytes) data center in Utah because the Agency just wants to spy on suspected terrorists. However, let’s just let it happen.

All this is well and good, but in terms of Grinnell College, it’s very simple. Go about your daily digital ways. Let the email system move to a cloud far, far away. Create an account on the new website and give all the information it asks for, even the optional fields. All this just means more data fed into government servers to be eventually systematized and analyzed for connections and trends, but it also represents damning evidence if this system of perverse analysis ever ends.

It bears noting that most of the slides on the PRISM program first leaked by Edward Snowden were slated for declassification in 2036. The security establishment and the firms contracted to do its dirty work are in this for the long haul. Those who have told me in person that we shouldn’t hide our communications assume that the political system or an involved citizenry will eventually bring this all down. Then, and only then, will we look through the guts of the leviathan for our mundane Google searches. Those that think this will all end by its own accord might do well to look at the current state of our government and its priorities during the shutdown. Whereas most of the government is closed, the NSA is still open for our security.

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