George Orwell's vision of "Big Brother" is feeling less and less like science fiction—especially after yesterday's shocking news that the U.S. government has direct access to the data from nearly all the communicating we do online or over the phone.
In case you missed it, the Washington Post and Guardian published a leaked document from the NSA that details a top-secret surveillance program, PRISM, which gives the government direct access to data from the major tech giants: Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and others.
It's really a chilling thought, but not a totally surprising one. There have been reports of this kind of snooping for years now, hinting at the direction the government's surveillance powers were heading in. This timeline from Mother Jones does a good job at illustrating how we got to this point, step by step.
And while plenty of people have raised warning flags along the way, there really hasn't been much outrage or action trying to stop it. It's a pet peeve of mine: American citizens have been either unaware or turning a blind eye to the implications of the government's expanding powers, distracted by the fun and promise of the web. We feel kind of creepy about the fact Gmail's reading our email and serving up targeted ads—but it's so convenient! We shrug it off.
I hope—and think—the PRISM leak will be a tipping point, to mobilize people to make action, or at the least, take notice.
So what can we do to stop it?
The online advocacy groups are already on top of it, of course. A spokesperson at Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Verge that there are three ways to stop the sweeping NSA surveillance: "The executive branch could say, ‘We’re done, we’re stopping this.’ Congress could make them stop one way or another, either by passing a law against it or defunding it. Or the third way is for the courts to issue an order saying this is illegal or unconstitutional."
With Congress split on the issue, EFF is going the courts route. The organization in a statement today, "We're leading the charge to stop the NSA’s domestic surveillance program in the courts. Since 2006, EFF has challenged the NSA surveillance."
The ACLU has an "emergency" action campaign up on its website, calling on people to stop government surveillance. So far 23,786 people have pledged their support to the campaign—the goal is 25,000.
"It's time to get angry," the ACLU writes on its site. "Be part of a strong public outcry against this program by signing the petition immediately and telling your friends so they know what's happening in this country."
The Center for Democracy and Technology has been warning even before the PRISM scheme that we must not let our right to privacy expire. It is petitioning Congress to update the current privacy law, which isn't sufficient in the digital age.
"Each day more of our private communications go into the cloud, where the government claims we have no Fourth Amendment rights," the CDT writes on its website. "Congress knows there's a problem (it's common sense!) but it won't act without a push from voters."
A CDT spokesperson said after the PRISM news hit, that "this may be the broadest investigative program in US history."
You can also take action on a person level to protect yourself from the NSA's roaming eye. There are countless resources on the web with tips for protecting your privacy online. (Some good ones here and here and here.)
The most basic thing you can do is to simply stay informed and aware. These things are a slippery slope. In a post on Medium today, Ryan Singel got it right with this point. "It’s time to bring that apparatus into the sunlight, think about what could be done with it," he wrote. "If we do not outright smash it, we should start to unbuild it."