PRISM: Bad for US Businesses?

Under SurveillanceI’ve been thinking about PRISM since the news broke, but I’ve stayed away from commenting so far. I was just amazed at how people reacted to the news. Some people said that if we were doing nothing wrong, then we had nothing to worry about. Others suggested that it was worth trading in our privacy for security. Others were saying that it would all be fine if we only spied on people outside our country.

I won’t bother with telling you what the government should be doing. They stopped listening to all of us a long time ago. Maybe the government ever listening to us was just an illusion. I wasn’t around in the late 1700’s, so I can’t really say. What I would rather focus on is what this tells us about the government and the impacts this could have on our businesses in the United States.

I know that the government tells us that they need to be doing all of this spying in secret in order to “protect” us from terrorism. If they don’t do that, “the terrorists will win.” I call BS on both of these statements. First off, I don’t believe that most terrorists are communicating via text message and gmail. What do I know though? Maybe they do. You know one way they could communicate that wouldn’t be so easy to tamper with? The mail. Does the Post Office open and scan all our mail? No. Does that mean that we are all fundamentally unsafe? Not anymore so than we’ve always been. So, why is this new form of spying so necessary? Because Big Data is cool. All jokes aside, it’s just because they can. They can violate our rights and get away with it, so that’s what they’re doing. The fact that they are so cavalier with our rights means that the rights of citizens outside our country receives even less protection. That’s the most important detail that could affect American businesses.

In light of what has been discovered about PRISM, why would a foreign government want to use any service that allows their data to flow across US data pipes or into the servers of US companies even if they are abroad? All of that information has been shown to be accessible by the US government. By that same token, if you are a non US citizen and you engage in certain actions that are illegal in the United States, but legal where you reside, do you want to use US services? Especially, if you might be visiting the United States one day? Or let’s say that you disagree with US policies and you have heated discussions with your cousin in Bahrain about how you wish you could teach the US a lesson. Maybe you might say something stupid that might sound like a threat before visiting your brother in the United States. Maybe you don’t want to be doing that over Skype. Free calls be damned.

The point is that these type of intrusions, while they might head off some instances of violence, will definitely seed more distrust in people’s minds. That will very likely lead to people reducing their usage of the services that the United States is a leader in. Facebook, Google, Skype, etc could all see drops in their usage. I don’t think that drop in usage will come from terrorists though. It will come from people that are just worried that something could be taken out of context, causing them issues at some point in the future. Or just people afraid of who might find out they are cheating on their wife or that they are actually gay. That information could be used against them in the future.

I don’t think the loss of trust in US companies will help them. It’s definitely a PR nightmare. Will it hurt them deeply? Probably not, but who knows. I just don’t believe that what we’re gaining from the practice is delivering as much as they claim. Who is to know though? They won’t tell us anything. After all, it’s classified.

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