Public vs. Private: The impact of PRISM on the web


In a recent blog article (Big data & advertising: Prediction over supposition), we talked about the importance of big data and how it will impact our everyday web services. As we all know, big data is the result of mass data collection and data collection always comes with one important question – at which point the collection remains legal and ethically acceptable. Almost all social media networks come with the premise that they will share some elements of their user’s data for advertising purposes and most people accept this because of the benefits of interconnectivity and accessibility. However, if an institution tries to collect data without giving any warning of their intention or benefits to the users, people can react with a lot of resentment.

However, the revelations this week from Edward Snowden have taken questions on big data collection to a whole new level. Snowden revealed the US surveillance system PRISM to the British newspaper the Guardian, a system which supposedly collects data from millions of people from within the US and abroad indiscriminately. Snowden claimed that this surveillance system is one of many and these are attached to the data pool from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, AOL and more. Officials from the US government immediately replied that this level of collection was necessary for public safety and that a person’s data remains unanalyzed unless they have reason to suspect that person is a threat to national security.

The first reaction by many people was to accuse the US (and other western governments as Snowden has revealed America is not the only country to collect vast amounts of big data) of trespassing on people’s personal right to privacy. And luckily for the likes of Google and Microsoft, they are mostly remaining outside of the debate. However, another question here is that when so many people voluntarily put their private information into a public space, do they still have rights in terms of how that information is used? It is also interesting that the use of personal data to make money with advertising is more accepted then the use of data for alleged safety reasons.

By any means, the illusion is fading that the internet is a place cut off from reality, with no intrusion from outside organizations or impact on the real work. The perceived anonymity of the web still remains, though whether this will last within social, video or mail platforms remains to be seen. The ethics of transparency within the web should mean that users are always aware about what will happen to their data so they always can rethink their actions on social media networks. So if a government puts a camera on a public street or on a website; both should be evident for everyone. Nevertheless, people may have to get reassess their beliefs that there is a clear right or wrong guideline for behavior on the web.


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