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Verizon, the NSA and our digital deluge-induced paralysis (Innovations in 5)

Here’s what we’re reading/watching today:

This undated US government photo shows an aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md. (AP Photo/US Government)
This undated U.S. government photo shows an aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md. (AP/U.S. Government)

1) Why don’t we, collectively, care more about our privacy? What can you do to keep the National Security Agency from getting data about your phone calls? And is this really such a big deal?

These are some of the questions floating around in the wake of a Guardian report by Glenn Greenwald that a secret court order required one of the United States’ largest telecommunications companies, Verizon, to hand over to the NSA tens of millions of customer phone records. In answer to the is-this-a-big-deal question posed above, The Post’s Ellen Nakashima writes:

If the document published by the Guardian is genuine, it could represent the broadest surveillance order known to have been issued. It also would confirm long-standing suspicions of civil liberties advocates about the sweeping nature of U.S. surveillance through commercial carriers under laws passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

So, yes, this is a big deal.  In 2006, the company denied providing customer data to the NSA after the Sept. 11 attacks. According to The Post’s story by Arshad Mohammed:

New York-based Verizon said yesterday that it would not confirm or deny any relationship with the NSA, but that “one of the most glaring and repeated falsehoods in the media reporting is the assertion that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Verizon was approached by the NSA and entered into an arrangement to provide the NSA with data from its customers’ domestic calls. This is false.”

Nakashima writes that a legal expert in this area said the order revealed on Wednesday appears to be a renewal of an order dating back to 2006. Also, in 2007, Verizon told congressional investigators that it provided customer data in emergency situations without a court order. Given this, the wave of outrage, including criticism from former vice president Al Gore, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But, as Venture Beat’s Ricardo Bilton notes, the outrage that follows such revelations has a tendency to obscure “what’s actually going on.” So, what is going on in this case? Time’s Victor Luckerson has a list of “seven things to know” about the NSA’s data collection, including that it could involve other carriers and that, as Nakashima also notes, it does not include the content of calls or texts (i.e. wiretapping).

That brings us to what users can do to keep their data from flowing to the NSA. The short answer appears to be: very little — at least in the immediate term. As Venture Beat’s Bilton points out, your options are pretty much limited to tossing your phone and sending a letter (remember, you’ve tossed your phone) to your representatives in Congress.

But that hasn’t stopped users from expressing their frustration on Verizon’s message boards and, not surprisingly, saying they will cancel their plans. As one post reads:

I will be cancelling my contract when it expires later this year.  PERIOD – Lost my business, Oh by the way; Residential and DirecTV also.

Not everyone, however, is up in arms over the discovery. Another message-board post reads:

Am I the only one who really doesn’t care about this? I read the article, all the court order is giving the NSA is the phone numbers I’m calling, times, etc. It’s not giving them the content of my call. It’s not letting them listen in on my conversations. You realize they can do this with any carrier, it’s not just Verizon. They just started with Verizon is all. If you are complaining and having a true fit with it, it makes me question if you are doing something wrong! I’m not so who cares! If they want my records, let them have it.”

And that brings us back to our original question: Why don’t we, collectively, care more about our privacy? It’s probably because many users feel paralyzed in the face of the deluge of technological innovation and the data it generates. In the span of 10 years, the way we collect, process, generate and share data has changed drastically. A decade ago, the iPhone didn’t exist, and Android was just another, more sophisticated way to say “robot.” So, that means, among other things, cue the jokes:

2) On a related note, if the Verizon news has you spooked, David Sinsky chronicles on Lifehacker how he taught himself to code in eight weeks, going from knowing nothing to creating a functioning prototype. However, there is a caveat:

It goes without saying that there’s a huge difference between the relatively cursory amount of knowledge needed to build a simple prototype (the focus of this post) and the depth of knowledge and experience needed to be a truly qualified software engineer.

That said, if you have eight weeks to spare, this may not be bad way to spend it.

3) Smartphones: yawn. That appears to be the sentiment among users eager for the next, big technology. The Post’s Hayley Tsukayama and Katerina Sokou explore the gadget’s future as wearable tech looms larger on the horizon — everything from head-mounted machines a la Google Glass to talking shoes (Google is working on one of those, too). But how close are we to a truly next-generation technology?

Even Google Glass is reminiscent of a Bluetooth headset (albeit a really souped-up version), since it’s tethered to your phone. Much of the wearable tech on the market, wristbands to track physical activity and headgear to monitor sleep patterns, feed data back to smartphones, as Tsukayama and Sokou point out. So it’s more like the pattern of innovation in wearables is to bounce off of the cellphone rather than depart entirely from it. But let us know what you think in the comments.

4) If you’re wondering what an ice-free Antarctica looks like, here you go. NASA provides a video showing what the polar cap bedrock looks like with the ice peeled away.

The new map is powered by a dataset called Bedmap2, which was created by a team led by the British Antarctic Survey. NASA’s now decommissioned Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat, contributed some of the data necessary to create the composite. The data are significant, since they give researchers additional information to determine how changing climates affect Antarctica’s dynamic ice sheets. NASA gives users an opportunity to slide between renderings of the region with and without ice to make a side-by-side comparison.

(NASA via Grist)

5) And PBS has released yet another remix of Mr. Rogers. This one, by “Symphony of Science” ‘s John D. Boswell, is called “Sing Together.”

Emi Kolawole is the editor-in-residence at Stanford University's, where she works on media experimentation and design.



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Emi Kolawole · June 5, 2013

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