Focus on the bigger picture of online privacy

One of our peers has asked, “Where are the college students protesting NSA surveillance?” with regards to the recent divulgence about the National Security Agency surveillance program known as PRISM.

I saw this question raised in an opinion piece published  online in USA Today College, admittedly bringing up an interesting point. But government surveillance is no new issue.

Back when telegraphs were the main means of communication, the government had access to telegraph records early on. During the Civil War, President Lincoln granted his Secretary of War total control of telegraph lines and had them rerouted through his office.

More importantly, the PRISM program is only part of a larger discussion about Internet communications. Nowadays, we all have many Facebook friends who constantly post status updates, upload new photos and like pages as if there’s no tomorrow. With just a glance, one can discern where they live, how old they are, what their hobbies are, when they have an exam and more.

In essence, people have been volunteering to share this private information for a decade. So why is there this backlash against the government now, when some of these same people have been freely offering up their personal information all along?

In the age of social media, there will always be an online footprint that you leave behind. Checking out your Google ad preferences profile is eerie, to say the least. Google can infer your demographics from web searches and history in order to show you relevant ads based on your gender, age, languages spoken and interests.

Furthermore, for those who use Gmail, how do you think you are able to access your email remotely from any computer? Your inbox, saved messages and drafts are all stored on Google servers. So no matter what the NSA is doing, your and millions of others’ apparently personal emails are still being kept on distant servers owned by Google. Why should there be disparities in trust between a private enterprise and the government? Both have access to our “private” information.

By all means, surveillance is a convoluted issue — one that can be seen from multiple viewpoints. However, in the midst of all the debate on whether the government is overstepping its bounds, one must not forget the bigger picture. In a time when Google and Facebook can track and collect information on the activity of their users, the issue of online privacy is also applicable to these Internet enterprises, if it is to the government.


Raymond La is a junior majoring in microbiology.