While many Americans have no clue who Edward Snowden is or why he’s being pursued by the United States government, the European Union recently passed a non-binding resolution to shield Snowden from prosecution. The New York Times reported that the resolution recognized Snowden as an “international human rights defender” for revealing the extent of the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.
To get a PSU student’s perspective on this issue, I interviewed Will Patterson, student system administrator and programmer at Academic Research Computing. “Edward Snowden did the world a service and doesn’t deserve to go to prison at all. He’s definitely a hero,” Patterson said.
Since the Internet has grown to dominate basically every aspect of modern life, government agencies and private corporations have designed new technologies to store and interpret massive amounts of data. Data can be many different types of information about a person, such as the type of music someone likes on Facebook or even what they buy with their credit card.
Patterson informed me that “companies have started using software called Silverpush that uses your phone’s microphone and speakers to send ultrasonic signals to other computers that have that software installed.”
“So, if you’re watching a commercial that plays that signal it could see that smartphone X is close to tablet Y and it could also tell which ads you watch on TV and even how long you watch them,” Patterson said. “The Silverpush development kit is included in many smart phone and desktop apps and its presence is usually kept secret.”
“There have been movies that glorify this type of privacy-violating software, like Batman: The Dark Knight, which showed this kind of technology being used for ‘good,’ but now it’s being used to spy on normal citizens,” Patterson said. “There are definitely better uses for this kind of technology.”
Many apps, specifically Facebook and Messenger, track your location whenever you use the app. Aran Khanna, a Harvard student studying computer science, invented a program which allows you to map your friends’ locations when they use Facebook Messenger. If a friend sends you a dozen messages throughout the day, you could have a very good idea of what they were doing. While this is creepy, it’s completely legal, since using the service requires an acceptance of the app’s terms of service.
While private corporations can skirt legal liabilities through terms of service waivers, government agencies are required to abide by legal parameters detailed in acts of congress, court rulings and executive decisions. As reported by the Washington Times, the U.S. Congress is debating the passage of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act which encourages corporations to share massive amounts of customer data with U.S. government agencies, specifically the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Administration. Although the bill purports to increase cybersecurity—something already being addressed by over a dozen private entities—it effectively limits the legal resources of average U.S. citizens to protect their digital privacy.
While Edward Snowden revealed to the world the extent of the U.S. surveillance program, Americans must use this knowledge to enact change and demand greater transparency from their government and from private corporations who peddle information many people assume to be private.
“Who knows how long this kind of stuff has been going on?” Patterson said. “It’s only going to get worse unless we do a complete 180 from the path we’re on now.”
As a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume that everything you post or look at on the internet is being collected and stored on some type of corporate or government server. Yes, even Snapchat.