The NSA is watching: Time to panic?

Despite telecom and Internet company denials about sharing data with intelligence agencies, the Prism program makes it clear that privacy only exists offline -- way offline.

By Jason Notte Jun 7, 2013 4:47PM
Image: Man with laptop (© Comstock Images/Jupiterimages)Now that The Guardian has assured everyone that their Verizon Communications (VZ) records are in the hands of the National Security Agency's Prism program and The Washington Post made it clear that the agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation likely have your online records, too, what can you do to make yourself secure?


Documents obtained by the Post indicate NSA has taken data from the servers of Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Yahoo (YHOO) and Apple (AAPL). Microsoft (MSFT), which owns and publishes moneyNOW, an MSN Money site, was also named, though the company, along with several others named, denies involvement.

Congress may have some explaining to do as well. It went along with both the Protect America Act and amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Service Act in 2008 that not only immunized companies that voluntarily cooperated with U.S. intelligence investigations, but got rid of FISA's warrant requirement for targets "reasonably believed" to be outside the United States.


While Mashable notes the myriad ways Prism is intended to target only persons outside the United States, there's a lot of wiggle room for the attorney general to allow intelligence agencies access to whatever data they deem fit for their investigation. As long as the NSA has reasonable suspicions that someone involved is operating outside the U.S., according to The Guardian, the agency can access email, video and voice chat, posted videos, posted photos, stored data, VoIP calls, video conferencing, social networking details, logins just about anywhere and "special requests."


We'd love to tell you that you can avoid all of this just by moving your information to a site or service that isn't named, like MySpace, Twitter or Dropbox, but that's not exactly how the NSA operates. Another document obtained by The Guardian indicates that it is planning to add Dropbox as a Prism provider and that it wants, in its words, to "expand collection services from existing providers.”


If you want the absolute honest truth about privacy in the modern age, here it is: It only exists off the grid. If you have a number attached to your name, if you send a bill to someone, if you swipe a card, enter a login, use bandwidth, talk over land lines, send letters through the U.S. Postal Service or large package companies, you can be traced. If you don't want folks to find you, there are a lot of people in this nation of ours who equip their homes with solar panels, use radiant or gravity heat and drill wells in remote places with the sole purpose of preventing the rest of the world from finding them.


That's been the choice for as long as the overwhelming majority of us have lived here. Technology is just drawing that line more clearly. It's up to each American to make that decision for himself or herself, but neither the government nor its partners makes that decision easy when they swap information behind closed doors.


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