All About Prism, Internet Privacy and -- Wait! -- Squirrel!

Some people are deeply upset about the latest incursions into our privacy. But as a society, we don't seem to care all that much.

By
Mon, July 01, 2013

Computerworld — As the saga surrounding the revelations about the National Security Agency's Prism program unfolded, I half expected a public figure to arise and declaim, a la Howard Beale in the movie Network, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

I'm still waiting.

The story is getting plenty of attention from the media. Reporters are playing "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" with the elusive whistleblower/spy Edward Snowden (take your pick). But do you care?

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[ FAQ: What the NSA Phone Snooping Uproar is All About ]

On June 10, the day that Britain's Guardian newspaper revealed Snowden's identity, the 10 most searched terms, according to Google Trends, were: iOS7, PS4, Tim Tebow, Mac Pro, Kingdom Hearts, Miami Heat, IGN, Chad Johnson, NBA Playoffs, and the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference ( WWDC).

NSA, Snowden, privacy, all that stuff -- none of it even made the top 20.

And the government hardly has a corner on the privacy-breaching market. Even as we continue to learn more about how the NSA collects data on U.S. citizens, we are also hearing about Facebook's shadow profiles, which collate data about you even if you're not on Facebook, and Google Glass seems to have a lot of people twitchy.

But do you really care? Or are you more like my dogs, who can be distracted at any moment by a rustling in the leaves. "Oh, look, a squirrel!" their alert little faces seem to say.

There's some hard evidence that all this privacy stuff just doesn't alarm us all that much. Take a look at some surveys. According to the Pew Research Center, "A majority of Americans -- 56% -- say the National Security Agency's (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority -- 41% -- say it is unacceptable." So most of us are cool with wiretapping.

But we're not as happy about someone peeking at our Internet usage. Pew found that "45% say the government should be able to 'monitor everyone's email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks.' About as many (52%) say the government should not able to do this."

Another survey, the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, conducted before the NSA revelations, found that 85% of U.S. residents said they were worried about unauthorized access by the government and corporations to personal information like phone records, emails and Web activity.

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