I've spent the past week reading about Edward Snowden and PRISM. Snowden's remarkable decision and the various details that have emerged about the NSA's massive program to capture and store data off the Internet and, reportedly, from servers run by Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, and others mark a watershed moment. I, and many others, have posted about this type of surveillance scenario before, but a young NSA contractor fleeing the United States for Hong Kong to expose the reality and scale of the U.S. government's eavesdropping is a chilling, worldwide wake-up call about our rights in an increasingly connected world.
I, for one, hope that Snowden's decision will bring about a sustained discussion about restructuring laws to accommodate the times we now live in. It's been painfully clear over the past few decades that the law has no chance of keeping up with technology -- a situation that has been exploited in just about every conceivable way, from online gambling to governmental eavesdropping.
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It's also an unfortunate inevitability that someone will exploit a loophole in the law for ethically questionable gains. However, when that "gain" breaches the privacy of millions of citizens, and the actor is the federal government, those loopholes should be closed -- quickly. Nothing could justify the spying infrastructure that Snowden's leak has exposed.
The devolution of the Internet
I don't believe we have all the facts yet, but there seems to be enough evidence to bear out what I and many others have been pointing out for years: that the technology to establish widespread, constant surveillance finally exists, and we are in danger of exactly the type of police-state scenario that many are starting to fear in light of revelations about PRISM.
However, I doubt this is the whole enchilada; it is just a part of an unstructured attack on the Internet in general, orchestrated by large corporations and governments desperate to exert control over the Internet for their own purposes. In doing so, they are destroying the very object they hope to control, much as a group of toddlers might tear apart a mutually desired toy at playtime. With commerce -- and economies -- so deeply tied to the Internet, the ramifications could be much more than the loss of easy access to cat pictures and viral videos.
In the beginning, Internet use was sporadic, slow, and not available to vast swaths of the globe. Access impediments were technical in nature. As time passed and technology improved dramatically, home and business connectivity became significantly faster, paving the way for far richer applications and uses, as well as more widespread access. Entirely new markets were created seemingly every few months, and the technical economy continued to push the envelope toward bigger, better, and faster technologies. The root cause was ubiquitous and relatively fast Internet access. At that time, everything changed.
We now see Internet access speed not increasing but foundering due to lack of competition and lack of regulation of ISPs. In fact, worse than stagnation, we've seen multiple attempts to curtail Internet access through inflated access fees, data caps, service tiers, and other controls imposed by ISPs bent on effectively dragging Internet access backward in time for hapless customers who have no alternative. We see governments that are keen on indiscriminately capturing and perusing vast mountains of data with nary a nod to the Constitution or privacy rights. We are seeing the Internet evolving from an open flow of human ideas -- both good and bad -- into an X-ray machine with an agenda.