Editorial: Edward Snowden and digital surveillance


The ISD Editorial Board responds to Edward Snowden’s March 4 lecture about internet privacy and digital surveillance. 

Editorial Board

Is privacy a thing anymore? Sure, you can close a door or whisper a secret, but are you really maintaining your privacy? With the amazing advances in technology we’ve seen in the last decade, namely smartphones and the internet of things, what does privacy really mean anymore?

On March 4, Edward Snowden, the famous National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower, gave a talk to Iowa State students entitled “Digital Surveillance: How Gen Z Gave Up Its Privacy to Corporations and the Government.”

Pew Research would say that anyone born after 1997 is Gen Z, so Snowden’s lecture is aimed directly at college students, particularly in that we are the oldest of our generation. Most of Gen Z still can’t vote, despite the fact that they are just as connected to smartphones and the internet as the rest of us and, as such, just as vulnerable to surveillance and privacy leaks.

Snowden’s lecture highlighted the two major concerns with regards to privacy and how the technology we all use on a daily basis can be exploited to erode or completely eliminate privacy as we know it.

First, what kind of access do government intelligence agencies have into our lives through our personal electronic devices, and to what extent are they abusing that access?

Snowden worked first for the CIA and then as a contractor for the NSA with both Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton. His experiences led him to work on many classified surveillance programs aimed at preventing terrorism but often reaching much further than just suspected terrorists. Though his leaks provided information on a number of programs, three stand out as highly applicable to the privacy of Iowa State students.

First, the NSA could access phone records whenever it wanted. Verizon, Sprint and AT&T were compelled to turn over any and all records whenever the NSA requested, no questions asked.

Second, the NSA used a program called PRISM to force tech giants like Google, Facebook and Apple to turn over all of the documents or records they requested, regardless of user privacy agreements.

Finally — and this one is terrifying — the NSA used, and probably still uses, a program called XKeyscore. Think of this program as a spy’s Google, only instead of searching for “boots” and finding pages upon pages of online shoe stores, NSA employees used XKeyscore to search for “terrorists” and were provided pages upon pages of text messages, emails, online chat logs, phone calls and pretty much every other form of electronic communication. 

While spying on terrorists is all well and good, this is an incredibly powerful tool. One simple search could pull everything on the internet connected to one’s name. It’s upsetting to know that all private information is being tracked, stored and sorted for later investigation.

In the government’s defense, NSA agents legally had to go to a FISA court judge and obtain a warrant to query specifics from the XKeyscore database. And when they did, the program was incredibly effective. The Washington Post described PRISM as “the most prolific contributor” to President Barack Obama’s daily intelligence briefing. A small price to pay for safety?

The second issue Snowden’s lecture highlighted is consumer data privacy. Is information about you yours? Or is it a commodity that mega technology corporations can easily acquire and sell to other companies to better target you as a consumer?

Here’s where the internet of things makes things really scary. If you have an Amazon Alexa, Google Home or Apple HomePod, you already know these companies know no limits when it comes to listening to you and then selling that information to companies who immediately target you with online advertisements. 

You don’t need to search for things online anymore for the internet to know you are interested in them. Talk out loud about them, or just drive by a place a couple of times, and you will undoubtedly be targeted online by merchants of those products.

It’s almost like you have your own little salesperson following you around all day, listening to all of your conversations, tracking all of the people you interact with, logging all of the stores you drive by but don’t shop at, noting the stores that you do shop at and all the things you buy. 

While that would all be very creepy, it doesn’t stop there. Your own little salesperson is also tracking the movies you watch, the temperature of your house, when you shower, how hot or cold your shower is, when you wake up, when you go to sleep, if you speed when you drive, all of the places you go in a day and the exact roads you use to get there.

Your phone and the internet capture far more information about you than you know about yourself, and certainly far more than you would willingly share with a stranger. Is your internet browsing history your property? You paid for the internet and you accessed the sites. Who else would own that information?

If you think the invasion of your privacy by the government or corporations through your smartphone is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, you would be right. How reasonable is it to track the activity of over 300 million people? Both of the concerns Snowden lectured on can and should be addressed by legislation in Congress. Giving up our rights to fight terrorism is the same thing as letting the terrorists win.