Last week, I heard a colleague from the Computer Science department mention that his job is to monitor the campus’ downloads and streaming (yes, this includes porn). Apparently, the Brandeis community makes some, and I quote, “exotic” choices in their Internet browsing material. A guy next to me freaked out upon hearing this. “Isn’t that a violation of our rights, or something?”
Rights to privacy have been hotly debated since Edward Snowden revealed last June that the National Security Agency was maintaining electronic records of American citizens, without us knowing. Libertarians and liberals alike have been outraged at this infringement upon their perceived right to privacy.
I have no issue with Brandeis’ monitoring of our Internet traffic (in fact, it’s not prohibited by the Fourth Amendment because it’s a private institution), or with the NSA monitoring our phone calls.
I also have no issue with Edward Snowden—in fact, I think his disclosure of information makes him one of the bravest, smartest and most Time Person-of-the-Year-Worthy people out there. I have no issue with keeping what the NSA is doing private or public, I only have an issue with the notion that any of what the NSA has been doing is news, or that it even matters.
We’ve all known from the start that anything we put online was fair game. Those of us who grew up around the Internet have been given fair warning by parents, teachers and anyone else with formal experience with the Internet that anything that’s put on the Internet is not private. Remember the Patriot Act? Sure, Facebook has privacy settings, but faith in such a contract is naïve at best. Whether we like it or not, anything we put on the Internet (social media in particular) is for other people or society to see. After all, why else would we put it there?
This monitoring also does not affect us at all on a daily basis (we didn’t even know it was happening until we were told it was). Many of us have gone everyday before last June, and even past it, illegally streaming Sherlock, Downton Abbey, and Lord of the Rings movies. The only way it would’ve affected us is if we committed an act of terror (or illicit pirating, in the case of Brandeis’ monitoring) and got unexpectedly caught in the act. It appears we’ve lost the right to break the law in private.
People will cry “Big Brother” and demand recognition of our dystopic, apocalyptic state. Now that the government knows our plans for this Friday night, they can more easily ruin our lives. The sad truth is that unless one is flagrantly posting about their planned terrorist activities, no one (not even the NSA) cares about what is on their Facebook accounts, in their messages to significant others or on their blogs.
In fact, there aren’t any NSA agents sifting through our messages and electronic paraphernalia at all. There are computer algorithms that will flag anything worth reading. No human eyes will ever see any of our stuff unless it gets flagged (and it hasn’t been, if you’re reading this newspaper). What the NSA does care about, however, is protecting us against violent, terrorist attacks.
Many liberals I talk to find protective measures like this unnecessary, stating that they encourage discrimination and infringe upon our intrinsic right to privacy.
But these people have often never been in any sort of actual danger. They’ve accrued the belief that any protective measures are superfluous because they’ve been brought up in extremely privileged, protected places because of agencies like the NSA.
How often do we have to worry about school buses with our children being blown up? How often do we have to worry that our homes will no longer be standing when we get back from school or work?
Regarding an intrinsic right to privacy, I believe we have one, but not when it comes to the Internet. If you want a private conversation, have it in person. If you want a photo or video to remain private, don’t post it on the Internet. Anything posted on the Internet publically is a cry for attention and we should not conflate our desire for attention with a “right” for privacy.
There are serious issues in the world, and there are places where people wish they had the resources for their government to monitor Internet traffic to stop bombs from going off in the streets.
While the dissent toward the NSA comes from a good place, it’s important to remember that we’ve known it’s been happening all along, it doesn’t actually affect us, and, in effect, it doesn’t actually matter.