In the wake of Edward Snowden’s leak of classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents to The Washington Post and The Guardian, the United States was quick to circle the wagons around the “right to privacy.” The NSA data collection program known as “PRISM” outraged the public, with many calling for immediate reform for what was seen as an unnecessary violation of our liberties.
While Snowden’s revelations were important, PRISM is not the massive threat to our privacy that most believe it to be.
The NSA’s collection of phone records does not include the contents of a call. What is kept is the number dialed, the number from which the call was made and the length and date of the call, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Though some information can be gleaned from this data, it is not nearly as extensive as what is available on social media — which is not only readily available to intelligence organizations but also to the general public.
Facebook profiles have the potential to provide phone numbers, pictures, school locations, information on family and friends, current and past hometowns and the like, which is a lot more information than NSA’s records could potentially provide. And when you’re friends with someone on Facebook, the access to personal details is more in-depth. This is even more concerning when considering sites that actively display in-depth background information, such as LinkedIn.
What makes social media usage more dangerous than the NSA’s programs is that we willingly give information to these platforms. Anything you put online is public, and it’s easy not to recognize that until someone is fired, prosecuted, publically ridiculed or has his or her identity stolen. Faced with this amount of vulnerability and exposure, why do we still put our personal details online anyway?
There is a false sense of security that the information we put online will stay within certain boundaries. Because we posted that information or media, there is an illusion that we also have control over the audience it reaches.
To convince ourselves of this is not only wrong, but it’s also dangerous. It’s the same logic that leads people to post about the vacation they are enjoying, only to become the victims of burglary. It leads workers to share ill-advised tweets, only to be fired days later.
This isn’t the fault of Facebook, Twitter or any company. It’s the reality of living in a highly connected, digital age. Every time we use social media, we are accessing a wealth of information about other people, and it is simply unreasonable to believe this connection is not a two-way street.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have control over the situation. Many social media platforms give us the tools to manage the availability of our content. But our tendency to overshare and our false sense of security make it easy to relax these restraints or disregard them entirely.
If our right to privacy is indeed dead, it isn’t something brought about by a clandestine government agency or an evil corporation bent on using the Internet for nefarious purposes; it’s everyday humans willingly giving information to the world. It’s the countless tweets, Instagram photos and blog posts that create a public digital profile of ourselves. As long as we consciously exert control over what we post, privacy isn’t dead. But in our current state, we just keep adding more nails to the coffin.
Matt Boey is a contributing columnist.