Following Edward Snowden’s shocking revelation that the U.S. government has been gathering information about private phone calls made through T-Mobile and Verizon, the entire country is in an uproar, and everyone has an opinion on the matter. Some support the government’s commitment to national security at all costs, while others, including most members of the mainstream media, are outraged at what they call infringements on personal privacy. But no matter what your opinion on the matter, you are probably feeling at least a little unsettled. We all know that personal information is more widely available in this digital age, but most of us quickly push that knowledge to the back of our minds. We think, “What’s the likelihood of that happening to us?” Snowden’s revelation has put this uncomfortable knowledge in the forefront of our thoughts.
Still, how much does the NSA’s data program really affect us? After all, the government has assured us that only suspected terrorists and those thought to be a threat to national security are being traced. Since most of us do not have terrorist ties, this seems to affect a very small percentage of the population. However, in the week following Snowden’s revelations, the government publicly admitted that it has been gathering information on foreigners for years using such digital media as Facebook, Google, and Apple. On June 14, Facebook announced that it has provided information about American citizens to the government, as well. This information is intended to help in the tracking and prosecution of domestic criminals, as well as those that pose a threat to national security.
Facebook is perhaps the most widely used digital media site, with 1.1 billion users worldwide. In the last half of 2012 alone, the company received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests from local, state, and national law enforcement officials regarding information about Facebook users. These requests pertained to a number of legal issues, including missing children, assault, and national security, though the company was prohibited from revealing how many of these requests actually had to do with national security. In a blog post discussing the release of information to government agents, Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot said:
“We’ve reiterated in recent days that we scrutinize every government data request that we receive – whether from state, local, federal, or foreign governments. We’ve also made clear that we aggressively protect our users’ data when confronted with such requests: we frequently reject such requests outright, or require the government to substantially scale down its requests, or simply give the government much less data than it has requested. And we respond only as required by law.”
Still, it leads us to wonder – how much, exactly, is “required by law?” And how does the government set limits to those requirements? Facebook is not alone in providing the government with information about American citizens. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have also received government requests for user information. According to this New York Times blog, these companies are now pressuring the government for more transparency about data regarding private users, and they are hopeful that officials will comply, especially in light of the NSA security leak.
In some ways, Facebook’s revelation about user information is more unsettling than Snowden’s revelation to The Guardian. While Verizon was asked to supply information about suspected terrorists, Facebook is being forced to supply information about any users, even on a local level. Some may find this comforting; it can certainly help to convict criminals and prevent violent crime. But what price are we, as a nation, paying for easier criminal convictions? Are we willing to sacrifice privacy for public security? It’s a question that becomes more personal when you realize the local police department could be watching your Facebook profile. And no doubt, it is a debate that will continue to rage as the country deals with the aftermath of Snowden’s revelations.