Anne Applebaum

Why are we all so shocked by Prism?

Why are we all so shocked by Prism?
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I am trying very hard to understand why everyone is shocked — shocked! — by news that the US government helps itself to the massive data flows generated by Google, Facebook and Twitter. I have always assumed that something placed into an internet database is no more secret than something written in a letter. We all know that those pop-up advertisements — so amazingly compatible with what we searched for on Facebook ten minutes ago — aren’t there by accident. But if we aren’t bothered when ruthlessly efficient multinational corporations troll through our data in order to earn billions for their teenage CEOs, why are we bothered when the comparatively inept US government does the same while searching for terrorists?

I reckon my own Gmail correspondence is kept relatively safe by two things: greed — and boredom. It’s in Google’s commercial interest to protect my account from thieves, because otherwise I will stop using it. Also, it would be too dull to read my email, or almost anyone’s email, for any other purpose. As for Facebook, you might as well post it all on a motorway billboard and be done with it.

Still, it seems we have to let this scandal unfold, at least until the next Boston bomber or Woolwich axe murderer, at which point there will be a call for a greater government ‘crackdown’ on terrorists, who — like everyone else — seem perfectly happy to communicate their secret views to all and sundry on the internet. Dzhokar Tsarnaev (the younger, nicer, apparently secular and well-integrated Boston bomber) posted links on his Facebook page to web pages with titles like ‘Salamworld, my religion is Islam’ and ‘There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts.’ Just two weeks ago, Theresa May bragged that 5,500 similarly ‘radical items’ had been taken off the internet because ‘we cannot stand by and let people whip up violent hatred of Britain’. Everyone nodded their approval. But how did the British government find those 5,500 radical items? By typing ‘violent hatred of Britain’ into the Google search function?

This is an extract from Anne Applebaum's diary in this week's Spectator. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.