The article was written by fourth year Media, Information, and Technoculture student Ademofe Oye-Adeniran. It was featured in OPENWIDE’s January Issue for Volume 14.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed information that has left the public with one scary thought: that the government is emulating Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ and is excessively vigilant of the lives of private citizens. Over a billion individuals worldwide have had their personal information collected by the National Security Agency (NSA), yet after this evidence was released there was no mass public outcry or backlash. This is partially due to mass media and technology socializing a new generation to respond in a complacent manner to security breaches.
In the summer of 2013, Edward Snowden, a former contractor of the NSA, released classified information to journalists. This information revealed that the U.S. government, in affiliation with other international security agencies, was engaging in a bulk collection of information from not only American citizens, but individuals worldwide. They monitored e-mails, text messages and cell phone conversations, as well as the places these conversations took place. International security agencies, including in Britain and Canada, collaborated with the NSA to retrieve this information. Records were retrieved from Verizon Business and from other tech giants like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Apple. Adding fuel to the fire, prior to Snowden’s information leak NSA Director General Keith Alexander declared a number of times that the NSA did not review the e-mail and text messages of Americans.
Following this massive infringement on personal privacy and breach of public trust, multiple Americans filed lawsuits declaring an infringement of their first and fourth amendment rights. Two federal judges disputed the constitutionality of the NSA practices in December of 2013. In Washington, judge Richard Leon concluded that the NSA’s mass collection of information was unconstitutional; on the other hand, New York judge William H. Pauley III disagreed. From the time when the information was leaked in May till the end of the year, apart from hearing the opinions of judges, the government, and corporations, there was no mass public response. This is partially because people are now accustomed to technologies that breach individual privacy. For example, for almost every application on a smart phone, customers have to agree to permit access to their files on their device, such as their pictures and music, and also to allow the application to transmit and obtain data.
It is clear in the twenty-first century that, to a certain degree, people already concede to a violation of their privacy. This concession is obvious with the use of social media. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, people disclose personal details about their whereabouts, the people they are with, the location of their workplace and the school they attend. Students can spend hours on Facebook researching strangers or friends by using Facebook’s information finding tools, such as “viewing friendships” or searching photos of a specific person in a specific year. People have lost their jobs because of the private information that they disclose on social media platforms, but nevertheless, everyone continues to use it and share information. Facebook itself retains a large amount of this information indefinitely, from photos to locations. In addition, while signed in, any internet searches by the Facebook user is utilized as information to display specific advertisements. Nevertheless, the number of Facebook users has increased from one million in 2004 to over one billion users in 2013.
The acceptance of subtle privacy infringements is also apparent with the increasing popularity of reality TV shows that follow the daily lives of people. Reality television shows from Keeping up with the Kardashians to Big Brother have gained over a million viewers. In the United States, Big Brother is on its thirteenth season, and it tracks every incident that occurs in the Big Brother household. The public can subscribe to online feeds and watch the people on the show 24/7. It is clear that a number of people have been indoctrinated into a culture of knowing, of being watched, and of watching other people’s lives, which has been facilitated by technology in the twenty-first century. People become accustomed to inspecting the personal lives of others and are therefore unsurprised when the government does the same.
This NSA privacy breach undermines the public/private divide that liberal democracy is founded upon. For liberals, the sole purpose of rights is to prevent the state from intruding into the personal lives of citizens. The NSA disregarded these precepts by collecting mass information about private citizens, and in doing so undermined their right to privacy. However, when the NSA scandal emerged there was no public protest, as those of us conditioned to subtle privacy breaches expected these intrusions. Although some expressed outrage, most did not seek a substantial change; perhaps because they felt they could do nothing about it, or because they thought this breach was just another part of the concessions of privacy that individuals forfeit daily.
To uphold public trust, the White House sanctioned a review of these NSA policies, which was released late in December of 2013. Earlier that month, Facebook, AOL, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo and LinkedIn issued a Global Government Surveillance Reform, requesting changes to the government’s system of data collection. Dissatisfaction among shareholders also caused Verizon Wireless to reform its policy; the company expressed that it will release consumer data collected at government request. This included limiting the number of individuals monitored and increasing the transparency of the process. Such responses indicate that it is possible for citizens to trust those in power to respond appropriately to such controversies, especially when the interests of capital are involved. However, these reports and changes were finalized only in December, which does not excuse the lack of public outcry during the six months prior.
Mass media and technology may be facilitating the development of a new generation that is complacent to the invasion of privacy through technology. As this generation emerges, responses to problems concerning increased government control, like the NSA controversy, may become non-existent.