Column | Sept. 24

Privacy in the Internet age

Edward Snowden’s leaks, and subsequent quest for asylum, transfixed people around the world. America’s response has been, at best, muddled. It’s hard to put up a united front when the scandal’s underlying issue of privacy divides the public. Lawmakers are also split, but support for the status quo endures. For once, what’s preventing action in Congress isn’t partisanship. There is plenty of anger and respect for Snowden on both sides of the aisle. What separates leaders and everyday citizens on the issue is less political than generational.

Our generation’s overexposure online fuels the perception that young people today do not value privacy. Twitter and Facebook attract an entire generation’s unbecoming photos and fleeting thoughts. Millennials who chronicle their most embarrassing escapades on social media seem unaware that these postings are publicly preserved. Young people largely, it seems, can’t comprehend the future repercussions of what they share online.

Yet they are, by and large, angry about the National Security Administration’s surveillance programs. The contradiction stems from a belief that behavior on social media is inconsequential, but that more private activities — everything from emailing to banking — are important. But this false distinction does not discount the fact that Millennials were raised in a unique environment, one that informs their outrage at the NSA. For older and middle-aged Americans — a demographic that includes the leaders who run the spying agencies — technology is something that came later in life. The Internet sprang up and revolutionized basic interaction and communication. Anyone who was around when the Internet arrived had to adapt. There was no other way to harness its ever-expanding force and influence. By contrast, Millennials came of age along with the Internet. To us, it’s organic. Young people today possess an innate appreciation for technology’s pervasiveness. Developing technological proficiency is akin to learning a language. There’s a unique fluency that develops in children from early and constant exposure.

Millennials’ lifelong experience with technology is sufficient, but not necessary, for one to appreciate how electronic communication permeates every aspect of modern life. Technological skills don’t break cleanly along generational lines. There are plenty of tech-savvy baby boomers and tweens who have no command over the latest gadgets. Politicians of all viewpoints — from the libertarian Rand Paul to the far-left anti-war activist Dennis Kucinich — fully appreciate the privacy violations that the NSA perpetrates. The common element among critics of America’s spying regime is a recognition of technology’s expansiveness and, subsequently, privacy’s importance.

American officials spin Snowden’s leaks to imply that every newly discovered surveillance program is legal and limited. The administration, for example, assured the public that the government doesn’t comb through the contents of private communications. In fact, that is untrue. Without warrants, the NSA sifts through huge swaths of the emails that come in and out of the United States. Analysts scour cross-border communications for information about individuals under government watch.
Somehow, the expansiveness of the NSA’s phone call dragnet is supposed to be a comfort. The sheer amount of data stored, proponents of the NSA argue, makes it cumbersome for analysts to uncover deeply personal information. The government does not directly listen into phone calls under this program. But the stream of numbers, times and dates that are logged often expose a call’s substance and intent. Princeton professor Edward Felten, in a court brief filed on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, points out that organizations like Planned Parenthood receive contributions via text message.

Many older Americans view technology as a distinct aspect of their lives. Electronic communication takes up a defined space. To many baby boomers and Gen-Xers, any inappropriate government encroachment on their digital privacy amounts to a targeted breach of their rights. By contrast, Millennials view online privacy more profoundly because they are more dependent on it. Electronic communication consumes every facet of a younger person’s existence.  The prospect of the government reading citizens’ emails and tracking their phone calls alarms young people especially because more of their lives are digitized and therefore vulnerable to intrusion.

The privacy debate has raised profound questions in the wake of the NSA leaks. Just how many intimate details must a free people part with in the name of safety? When has privacy been compromised so greatly in the name of security that there is little left to protect? The country will continue grappling with these vexing questions, perhaps with no resolution. In the meantime, the voices of those who are most personally invested in digital privacy should not go unheeded.

David Will is a religion major from Chevy Chase, Md. He can be reached at dwill@princeton.edu.

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