Just what should the limits of information-gathering by the Federal government be? And should we be taking additional technological steps to protect ourselves from government overreach? These are two of the most fundamental questions of our era. And, while my opinions here may surprise you, I don't think we really have much to worry about, at least at present.
I need to mention here that I was active in politics for many years here in Ashland, MA. I served on six different Boards and Committees, including a term on the Board of Selectmen (and one year as Chairman), arguably the Town's highest office. I was a political science major before (thankfully) switching to applied mathematics and computer science; this change driven as much by terminal ADD as a love of technology, but, still, I've really had a blast working in many aspects of IT over the years. But my interest in politics has not waned, even if today my political activities are limited to occasionally yelling at the TV.
I'm officially unenrolled, which is Massachusetts-speak for not belonging to any political party, but I do tend to be a strict constructionist with respect to the Constitution and in favor of very limited government overall. So, I should be absolutely up in arms over the latest intelligence-gathering excesses now bring reported, with the NSA intercepting detailed phone call and other communications information, and perhaps even tracing or otherwise acting on this data, at least in some cases, in real time. I'm a Verizon customer with two landlines and two cellular numbers, so I should at the very least be concerned. I'm not.
While I'm troubled that the PRISM program (as it's known; see the formerly-classified details here, and perhaps others (over the years, programs like Total Information Awareness, ECHELON, Stellar Wind, RAGTIME-P, and undoubtedly many more), might be used for clearly unconstitutional purposes, there is no evidence that such is the case here. I saw the President's statement on this subject today, and I take him at his word. The National Security Agency and others are well within their charter to monitor offshore communications. Any Layer-1 (or perhaps even Layer-2) "metadata" (I'm not sure the government's and media's use of this term is entirely accurate here) used to do this should be fair game - after all, it's in the clear. As long as Layer-7 isn't read, even if that's in the clear, I'm comfortable - not happy, but comfortable. Such are the times we live in. Moreover, any argument that a cellular carrier or ISP or other Internet firm is acting in bad faith here is simply unsubstantiated, at least at present, from my perspective.
Keep in mind that we could reduce the likelihood of terrorism to close to zero if we were to simply suspend the Constitution altogether and allow the government to spy on everything we do, stop us for random searches at any time, invade our homes and IT resources (particularly WRT content at Layer-7) without a warrant, and otherwise reduce freedom to zero. Freedom really seems to be the problem here, then, doesn't it? And yet, without that, there really wouldn't be much of a nation worth saving. Totalitarian states like North Korea, where terrorism is likely not a concern at all, don't seem to have much of a tourism industry. Therein lies the challenge - no one wants to kill the country in order to save it. It's just a matter of finding a balance that works, and I think we can do that.
In the meantime, the more paranoid out there can find very effective Layer-7 encryption for all forms of traffic at popular prices.
Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass.