The drama around the PRISM surveillance is unfolding as we speak. Glenn Greenwald (and, by relation, the Guardian) continue to milk the apparent sensation for every drop it could bring to his fame and to their dwindling income. US security honchos keep providing some mumbling and some hilarious responses (not wittingly indeed). The whistleblower hero/traitor naively assumes that by telling the world that "U.S. government has been hacking to gain information from hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide for years" he is shaking the foundations of the free world and waking up the uncounted billions that will now... what exactly? He knows, possibly, but still isn't telling.
The Republicans and the Democrats are in total confusion, flipping their traditional positions, forgetting what exactly were their well rehearsed principles during the reign of previous administrations. No, the current administration wasn't the one to start this business. And, I dare say, nor was the previous. It goes way back.
The Chinese*, the Russians, the Israelis, the Brits, the French etc. who practice the same or similar surveillance methods**, each to their own ends, watch the brouhaha with a good measure of glee and a good measure of satisfaction - for reasons I don't have to explain.
To some degree I understand the sentiment of the FBI Director Robert Mueller that "law enforcement must stay a step ahead of criminals and terrorists". And I tend to believe that in some cases PRISM surveillance helped to catch some suspects. On the other hand, creating an avalanche of data isn't by itself a guarantee of success - if, indeed, the purpose of creating the avalanche is to catch the terrorists. But in general, the indignation displayed by some pundits, who are trying to show the world that the phenomenon in question is something absolutely new and unheard of, is kinda pathetic.
Collecting information has always been just another facet of espionage. We may detest espionage in all its forms, but this sentiment will not make it go away. The information is out there, it is available, everyone was collecting it, is collecting it and everyone will continue to collect it. It goes against our moral judgment, unfortunately, but it is there - as is crime, as is death or taxes. It is going on and, instead of handwringing and bemoaning the unfairness, everyone, no matter if a big or small business, a corporation or a regular Joe, should decide on the optimal mode of behavior that will protect his/their/its privacy best, without committing any offense against the laws of the land, of course.
Well, for the issues related to the impact of the PRISM on businesses you can do much worse than reading this post by Francis Sedgemore. He laid it out quite succinctly. My interest for now is with a regular Joe. A person whose little personal secrets range from a potentially embarrassing video clip he/she may have inadvertently taken in a moment of inebriation and uploaded on Youtube, via a few bucks salted away in an account the spouse (or IRS) knows nothing about, to a few movies downloaded illegally for free, saving self and family members a few bucks that would have been otherwise spent on getting the movie from Flicks. You know, all these small but potentially shameful items... Or, if you want to really raise the ante, some "anonymous" blogger that sometimes allows himself a few non-parliamentary expressions or thoughts aiming at some high windows. I have put quotation marks around the word "anonymous", because this anonymity shtick is a total self-deception that this specific blogger doesn't really share - the veil of secrecy is so thin that whoever needs (or wants) to know the real name, address, ID number and other little shameful items about the said blogger, does know them all. And more, I am (not) afraid.
To remind you again about the PRISM abilities:
Data which the NSA is able to obtain with the PRISM program may include email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice over IP conversations, file transfers, login notifications and social networking details.In other words: everything you did or intend to do via your computer or smartphone is available and thus known and could possibly be used. And of course, nobody even mentions anymore such trifles as your banking details, your credit history, your credit cards' numbers and activities: all this is already far behind the current frontiers of data collection, having practically become a part of public domain.
Let's check now what exactly could happen to your personal information while it's stored somewhere in the innards of the government's behemoth. As someone who dubbed a bit in data processing and data mining, I think I could offer a few likely scenarios.
1. Democratic societies
By and large, your regular Joe and his/her light infringements of law and order are not of interest to the data mining machines. The reason is simple: any data mining operation that will focus on minor misdeeds will bring up so many millions of trivial results (which, most probably, will include the watchers themselves), that there is absolutely no sense in performing this kind of operation. The nets are being thrown into the sea for much bigger fish.
This is the main reason that, as long as the regime that guards and benevolently watches your personal pursuit of happiness doesn't change for worse, you are getting off scot-free with all these little missteps of yours. But you shouldn't ever forget that the information about these missteps is out there in your government vaults. The moment when, instead of mining the data for big fish, someone comes to the accumulated data to look for you specifically, our regular Joe, the situation will change drastically. Because it is there and in one simple inquiry it will come out, straight and unvarnished. For most people, of course, it will mean no more than a slight embarrassment or a tiff with a friend. For some it may mean an ugly divorce, for some - an invitation to IRS, for some - a break-up of a life-long friendship. Etc...
So how and when could all this trove of information about you become dangerous to or, at least, encroaching upon your well-being? Even in a most democratic society there is at least one possibility of such event. Paradoxically, it could be caused by the same kind of well-meaning heroes/villains/morons like Snowden, Manning and, not to forget of course, Mr Assange. In exactly the same way that they've casually exposed human rights activists in Belarus, Russia, Iran and other places, their way of making the stolen information public could expose your little secrets as well. Nothing personal, of course, it will be done for pure and altruistic motives. If it happens, you are a fair prey to the curious eyes of your friends (to start with), your family and, of course, your personal enemies. You may be sure that the moment a search in the database becomes possible, courtesy of whistlblowers, the people who know you personally will be the first to satisfy their natural curiosity.
Then, of course, there are hackers. Being sloppy in everything they do, the government bureaucracts quite surely overlooked a few cracks in the defense mechanisms of their data warehouse behemoth. The bad guys out there will find a way to the info, and your only protection is that of a proverbial leaf in a forest: the chances one of the bad guys will get to you are small enough to regard them exactly as you regard a chance of getting into a traffic accident.
All in all - if you are a lazy guy/gal that doesn't like to change the acquired lazy habits, there is not much you can do. There is definitely one thing that I wouldn't do if I were you: buying one of these $19.99 encryption software packages from the market and using them on your personal data, your e-mails etc. This is one surefire way to let the good guys (if you could call the Big Brother's servants good guys) and the bad guys to sit up and listen, asking themselves all kinds of questions about you. In no time your puny encryption will get cracked, but the attention you have earned just by using it will make you flagged forever - and who knows where it will end? One of the good guys may just decide to send your name and address to IRS - to give you one possibility of a rather miserable ending of your otherwise happy existence.
Generally: don't do on the Internet anything you wouldn't do in the central square of your city or village (on a market day). And think twice before doing it on your computer even if it's not connected to the Internet. You never know.
As for your smart phone: it is smart, but for all practical purposes it's not exactly yours. Several good guys and an uncounted number of bad ones are watching it. Take care.
Of course, there is another nightmarish scenario: the democracy you live in and are so fond of carping about, the fragile thing that it is, could transform into something much less benign overnight. And here we come to the other kind, the
2. Not so democratic regimes
Once, in my other life, the one spent behind the Iron Curtain, I was lectured by a guy in the know. The subject was exactly that which we are discussing now: what is it that the Big Brother (usually dubbed KGB back then) wants to know about us? And the answer was, unsurprisingly - everything (just like now, isn't it?). The reason was simple: KGB wanted (still wants, under another name) to have as much compromising information as possible on each and every citizen of the country (of course, if possible, on foreign citizens as well). The purpose wasn't to jail every single citizen, far from it. KGB simply wanted the ability to pull the hook, already imbedded in your guts, the moment your services will be required for this or another purpose. It wanted to be able to show you the stick of the possible blackmail without any need to dangle the more expensive carrot in front of your face.
And this is precisely the point where your tiny indiscretions: that clip you have uploaded unthinkingly, the downloaded movie, these few bucks you've salted away - all that and more will come out, carefully secured in a drab-colored file with a long number instead of your name on it.
Oh, and if you were a motormouth blogger in that previous life and tended to badmouth the current leader (Caudillo, Fuhrer, whatever): your file may be a bit bulkier, and the blackmail option could be shelved too, being unnecessary in your case.
Bleak, isn't it? In fact, aside of the technology involved that makes it that much easier for the bad guys, not much has changed since the first informer in history told the first tyrant in history about a suspicious conversation he overheard recently... so again, just take care.
(*) Which reminds me the biggest irony of the situation: Snowden is asking for asylum from the people who will benefit the most buying his services, expecting him to do for them exactly what he was doing before, but against his own country. I don't know whether he realized this already, but it is inescapable. Update: Sure thing: Chinese Paper Says Snowden Could Bolster China's Cyber Expertise.
(**) And another ironic moment: US of A, which, as I mentioned, is only one of many others practicing that kind of surveillance, is the one suffering the most from the attention of the well-meaning whistleblowers. Have you hears about Wikileaks or anyone else exposing anything similar or anything of value at all about China, Russia, North Korea etc.? I bet...