FISA, Facebook, and the End of Privacy
by James Corbett
January 21, 2013
The gods of irony must have been feeling particularly mischievous this holiday season.
For those who missed it, the Zuckerberg’s private holiday gathering was spoiled last month when a photo of their family festivities was leaked online. In a move described as “way uncool” by Randi Zuckerberg, the victim of this terrible internet crime, Callie Schweitzer took the photo from her Facebook feed and posted it to Twitter. Apparently, Schweitzer believed that the photo had appeared in her feed because Zuckerberg had posted it publicly. As it turns out, the photo was not public, but had shown up in Schweitzer’s feed because she is Facebook friends with Zuckerberg’s sister, who was tagged in the photo. Schweitzer apologized and deleted the picture from her Twitter and the two made peace, with Zuckerberg chastising all the would-be Callie Schweitzers of the world to double-check before re-posting friends’ photos online. Apparently, Zuckerberg believes this to be “internet etiquette.”
This is the type of drama that plays itself out each and every day amongst the hundreds of millions of online users of social media around the world, and all things being equal, you would never have heard about this story. The twist that makes this story particularly ironic—and particularly noteworthy—however, is that Randi Zuckerberg is Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, and the photo in question is a photo of Mark playing around with Facebook’s new “Poke” app.
Yes, that Mark Zuckerberg.
For those living under a rock for the past several years who have somehow managed to miss the years-long buildup of hype around Facebook, from fawning press coverage to David Fincher’s 2010 flick “The Social Network” to the hype surrounding the company’s much-ballyhooed IPO and subsequent market flop, Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook.com. In effect, Zuckerberg’s own controversial privacy settings resulted in his private family photo being seen by millions around the globe.
Some will see this as poetic justice. This is, after all, the same Mark Zuckerberg who participated in an IM exchange with one of his friends in 2004, shortly after launching Facebook, in which he bragged that “I have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS. People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb fucks.”
This is the same Mark Zuckerberg who admittedly used the passwords of some of the earliest Facebook users to hack into their email accounts, accessing their personal information.
This is the same Mark Zuckerberg who deflected concerns about the his website’s cavalier approach to protecting users’ privacy by opining that privacy is no longer a social norm.
This is the same Mark Zuckerberg who was accused earlier this month of violating Germany’s data protection laws by the country’s own data protection commissioner.
Given this history, it is difficult to feel too sympathetic to Mr. Zuckerberg for Callie Schweitzer’s apparent lack of understanding of “internet etiquette.” Surely if the very social norms codifying our understanding of privacy have fundamentally altered in the years since Zuckerberg first founded Facebook, as he himself claims, a few of the site’s billion or so users can be forgiven for the occasional breach of this newly-evolving concept of “etiquette.”
But there is another irony to this story, one that points to something altogether more disturbing. At the exact same time as this Zuckerberg family photo drama was unfolding in the public spotlight, receiving coverage on thousands of media outlets, an altogether more insidious breach of the privacy rights of an entire country was taking place. Unlike the Zuckerberg story, however, which provided plenty of juicy headlines for the online column writers to sink their teeth into, this story was barely a blip on the media radar.
On December 28, 2012, in the midst of the holiday news break and under cover of the “fiscal cliff” hype, the US Senate quietly voted to approve a renewal of amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Although hardly discussed at the time and almost never brought up since, the 2008 FISA Amendment Act represented a fundamental change to the US government’s official, on-the-record approach to the collection of personal data on its own citizens and others around the world. The Act was passed as a response to the revelation that the NSA, in collusion with the nation’s biggest telecom companies, had been secretly and illegally wiretapping and eavesdropping on American citizens private phone calls and email messages at the behest of a 2002 presidential order from President Bush. The FISA Amendment Act retroactively granted immunity to the telecoms and agencies that had participated in this illegal program, and abolished the necessity for the NSA to even bother receiving a FISA court rubber stamp when eavesdropping on Americans’ personal communications.
There are many things to be appalled at in both the original 2008 FIA Amendment Act and its recent renewal: the blatant and totally unconstitutional nature of the law, attempting to hardwire into law the total abrogation of whatever was left of the 4th amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure; the fact that years of blatant criminality and, yes, criminal conspiracy between the telecoms and the federal government can be made retroactively legal, thus absolving them of their clear culpability in participating in criminal acts; the fact that Obama was against the telecom immunity before he was for it, and now that there is a Democrat in the White House the fake liberal left that once pretended to care about civil liberties has dutifully shut up on the issue.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Act, however, is that it is in fact nothing new at all. As commentators like MI5 whistelblower Annie Machon have pointed out, the intelligence agencies of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK have been flouting domestic spying laws for decades by sping on each others’ citizens and sharing that intelligence amongst themselves via the ECHELON system. This has been known, understood, and talked about since at least 1988, when ECHELON was first exposed by British journalist Duncan Campbell, and yet here we are 25 years later and there still has yet to be any serious debate on these practices amongst the general populace.
In a sad way, the fact that the FISA Amendment Act was renewed with so little fanfare is not surprising at all. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg is right after all: privacy is no longer a social norm. Hundreds of millions of people are happy to log in to their social media of choice each and every day and happily share the most intimate details of their life with the world at large. Even regardless of the implications of this destruction of privacy in the face of increasing governmental intrusion and tyranny, the utility of this information to criminals, stalkers and cyberbullies is well known and documented. Yet still, our society cannot even be motivated to hold a serious conversation about the nature and the value of privacy when it comes to volunteering that information to unaccountable corporations who are able and willing to sell that information to the highest bidder. How, then, can we expect the public to be incensed by the FISA Amendment Act.
In the end, as in so many other issues of vital importance to the future of our society, the vast majority of the public will only be motivated to concern themselves with it when it has personally affected them. When their personal information has been used by motivated criminals to steal their personal identity, or by stalkers to track their movements and learn their routines, or by governments to track and surveil the movements and habits of activists and critics, they will suddenly rediscover the importance of privacy, and why it was held in immeasurably higher regard in previous years than it is today.
In the meantime, the masses—to the extent that they tackle the issue at all—will be content to rely on argument-by-slogan (“if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” after all) and to treat the nightmare visions of years past as if they were mere popcorn entertainment, wondering to themselves what was so intimidating about the concept of Big Brother, anyway.
For The Corbett Report in western Japan, I am James Corbett.