Skip to content

Is PRISM Ultimately Good for Privacy?

It seems like common sense to think of privacy and transparency as opposing forces. One seeks to expose, while the other seeks to hide. The Broken_glassreality, however, is a little more complex.

There are two revelations in the history of cryptography that shed light on the value of transparency to privacy.

Public-Key Cryptography is the real world realization that a system designed to ensure privacy that is wholly based on a private key will ultimately fail for very practical reasons. The effort to exchange a key, but also keep it secret, is a problem. Ultimately, a secret is something only one person knows, and so the most effective cryptographic method relies on the ability to publicly exchange a functioning key. In this case, privacy relies on transparency to function.

Open Source Cryptography is the other example where disclosure ensures privacy most effectively. The idea that an openly available method of encrypting data actually produces a more secure result may seem obvious to those in the information security now, but it actually flies in the face of what many would consider common sense.

What does this have to do with PRISM? There have been now a series of disclosures, accusations, and consequences from Edward Snowden’s actions. We’ve started down a rabbit hole, but we’re not at the bottom yet. As we learn more and more about the program and the data collected, we move further toward an open model. This is important, and difficult to articulate in a crowded room full of heated conversation. Let me start with two assumptions about government data collection:

  • The government must be able to collect private data in order to ensure national security.
  • The individual whose data is collected cannot know that this has happened until after a conclusion has been reached.

These two assumptions are used to drive programs like PRISM through FISA and other means. Proponents of secrecy use these assumptions to arrive at the conclusion that the entirety of these operations must be kept secret. This is the argument for closed source government data collection. It’s wrong, and it ultimately fails gloriously with Snowden. Add some new assumptions:

  • The government must be able to collect private data in order to ensure national security.
  • The individual whose data is collected cannot know that this has happened until after a conclusion has been reached.
  • The government may only collect data that is specifically relevant to an investigation (insert constitutional law here).
  • The method and system for requesting, approving and collecting this data must be publicly disclosed.
People will argue about constitutional law and searches. It’s a good argument to have because defining what a ‘search’ is and when it’s relevant is really important, but it’s the fourth assumption that’s really sticky. It’s only when the entire apparatus of data collection is available to *anyone* that the first two assumptions can be held true for any length of time. The ‘Snowden Effect’ is unavoidable in any system that relies on the secrecy of its methods. It’s the transparency that drives a better system, and ultimately more effective data collection and more confidence about privacy. Is PRISM ultimately good for privacy? That question should be “Is the inevitable disclosure of secret data collection methods ultimately good for the transparency of government operations?” I think the answer is yes.
There are many who would argue that the mechanism and methods must be kept secret. So what are those arguments?

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *