– Ben Martens

Reading Your Email

PRISM is still a hot topic in the news as more and more information leaks out. I happily stay far away from politics, especially on this site, but when there are people spreading incorrect tech facts out there, I feel compelled to speak up.

I believe there are definitely some reasons to be disturbed by this news and to call my representatives to make my feelings known. However, as with most popular news stories, there are people arguing the same side as me but who I completely disagree with. Those people say they are appalled that someone was reading their email or their web traffic. Their email is private! Umm… what? Even if the NSA wasn’t reading your email, you know who can read it? Your email provider, your ISP and countless other people along the route. Not only CAN they read it, but they DO. How else can Gmail serve up those contextual ads based on words that are in your email? How else can they filter out spam? How else can they sell information they glean about you to advertisers and other businesses? And even if THEY aren’t reading your email for some reason, I assure you that China, Russia and other countries are. There’s nothing difficult or illegal about the technology since it’s all sent across the Internet unencrypted. It’s trivial to read it.

Now if you want to call for changes in the scope of the NSA’s powers, create better oversight and transparency, or stop the government from using their web snooping to profile citizens, then that’s fine. But please don’t muddy the waters by being surprised that someone is reading your email.

On a related note, there’s an excellent open letter from a guy named Ben Adida to President Obama which makes some fantastic points about this whole debacle. He does a wonderful job of communicating his point logically without letting emotion ruin the argument. Here’s my favorite quote from the letter, but please go read the whole thing:

What would have become of the civil rights movement if all of its initial transgressions had been perfectly detected and punished? What about gay rights? Women’s rights? Is there even room for civil disobedience?

Though we want our laws to reflect morality, they are, at best, a very rough and sometimes completely broken approximation of morality. Our ability as citizens to occasionally transgress the law is the force that brings our society’s laws closer to our moral ideals. We should reject mass surveillance, even the theoretically perfect kind, with all the strength and fury of a people striving to form a more perfect union.