Our relationship with the Internet is… complicated.

If you own a device connected to the internet, then it has at least a few parts; a hard drive to store information, a processor to modify the information, and a network card to enable it to communicate with other devices. Whatever the device may be – computer, phone, laptop, tablet, anything “smart home” – if it connects, it has these parts among a few essential others.

Really, that is all it takes to create an internet at its simplest rendition: two devices capable of communicating to relay information. After many advancements in technology and standardization epochs, the internet of today has much more infrastructure and carries massive quantities of information that were unimaginable at the beginning and can only be described as a sea of unknowable depths.

Everything you have ever put onto the internet, including communication, email, the cloud, everything in your phone, all of it is part of this sea of information. One is tempted to think that our own identity is lost in this sea, but this would be a false sense of security. Computers do not struggle to remember ten billion phone numbers the way you and I do. Computers have a way of remembering everything all the time, even when we have long forgotten, or when we wish they wouldn’t remember at all.

Prior to June of 2013, Americans only had fragments of this massive and complex internet-spying system, made permissible by the PATRIOT Act’s Section 215, which were not possible to understand without more context. Ostensibly, this system of national defense was being used to spy on foreign terrorists and their domestic contacts, and that nothing more would be made known for the sake of national defense. Nations spied on global figures all the time, and it’s often a plot element in popular culture. That doesn’t seem new at all. As long as they aren’t spying on me then I am okay with that.

With each news fragment, we could almost sense what was happening – that our rights to privacy and to peaceful assembly were being violated. What we didn’t yet know was just how comprehensively so. Eventually, one of the people working within the machine stole the owner’s manuals and ran out the door with them. Edward Snowden admits that the amount and complexity of information describing these programs meant that he would not be able to do this himself in a timely manner while on the run. Snowden handed over the documents to journalistic organizations for research.

The problem with this topic is a facet of the quandary we find ourselves in as a nation: how can we discuss something we do not understand? The issue is so intangible; what are the laws governing electronic signals which carry information belonging to one person on the hardware belonging to another person which may contain national security information important to a government? In a recent interview with Edward Snowden, John Oliver poses the whimsical-yet-tangible question of how a user’s nude photograph sent in privacy might be intercepted and indexed by the government without thought:

As our information flows around the infrastructure of the internet, it is subject to laws in different countries depending on where the hardware is located. Since America holds a position at the crossroads of technology, it has access to the vast majority of the internet traffic which is stored in it and temporarily passes through its borders. The PATRIOT Act permits the collection of any “tangible” piece of information which crosses the nation’s borders.

Aside: I can imagine how that conversation went: “Hi, I am with the NSA and I would like a copy of the internet.” “But that’s not tangible, it’s all digital code!” “Print it out, then.” “Print it out?! Do you have any idea how much paper that would take?” “Yeah, sounds pretty wasteful…. We can accept a digital copy instead.”

As this information is stored and accessed and backed up and defragmented and transferred it moves from computer to computer owned by service providers (i.e. Facebook, Google, Yahoo, etc). Should these computers be owned on either side of a national border, this would constitute foreign communication.

Thus, laws passed by America have allowed the government unprecedented access to the collective knowledge, culture, and communication of the world. The government has created the legal and physical framework for comprehensive global surveillance. We have created the very Orwellian demon predicted by the great minds of the 20th century which laid the foundation for its own existence. This thing exists. Why haven’t we demanded its dismantling for the sake of the world’s right to privacy?

Because even now, two years after we learned about it all, the average person still has no idea what it all means or how it affects them. John Oliver states, “We have this information now. We no longer have the luxury of pleading ignorance.” He lamented in the monologue before the interview that “we forgot to have a debate” and his street corner interviews highlighted how ignorant the average person was on this topic of domestic spying and rights to privacy. Oliver humorously tells Snowden “you might be able to go home because no one knows who … you are or what … you did.”

Oliver almost begs the question himself it seems: What is wrong with our press that our nation is so misinformed that its most heinous traitors / courageous whistleblowers and their actions are largely unknown? He refers to the public debate over Section 215 as a “canary in a coalmine”; if this obvious problem requiring an informed public cannot be solved, then can we expect anything to be solved?

If not, have we lost control over the government we entrusted with our protection? Have we completely surrendered our rights to liberty and self-government because our enemies are terrifying and the decisions are hard? Passed hastily after September 11th and with consequences still being made known to this day, did the PATRIOT Act transform us from a republic into an empire because no one noticed? Because technology had become too technical and too unbelievably potent?

And is the internet even safe to use anymore?

Aaron Crossman
executive producer, staff writer, webmaster
Computer America