PRISM and Privacy: A Conversation That Must Be Had



I recently wrote about the decline in what used to be called privacy. The definition of privacy is mutable, ever-changing. What was considered private 100 years ago, even 20 years ago, is practically non-existent today. As I wrote in 2006, before the iPhone and all devices that have followed, “Technology Increases, Privacy Declines.” One of the characteristics of the Shift Age is that all of us now live with two realities: the physical reality and screen reality.

The uproar around Mr. Snowden’s disclosure of PRISM information and the NSA’s action must be looked at within current context, which is complex. We have ever more connectivity, ever more mobile computing power, an explosive use of social media based upon sharing, fear of terrorism, ever more information being created with ever more intelligent devices and chips and an ever greater integration of humanity globally as a result of all of this.


Edward Snowden is a whistle blower. It is because of him that we now know that the personal communications of all Americans and many citizens of other countries have been monitored. His revelations immediately caused NSA officials and others to “revise” earlier comments made about the program. The government response to Snowden’s revelations confirmed both that (a) these disclosures were correct and (b) that our government officials lied to us.

We now have learned about the secretive FISA “court” that must approve requests for surveillance, and that it is only the government that argues before the court – there is no ‘defense’ in the situation. This is not exactly the checks and balances system our founding fathers envisioned. It has been reported that in the last 33 years, there have been 33,000 surveillance requests made by various intelligence agencies; only 11 have been denied. It could be said that the military industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us against has set up its own secretive Supreme Court, but with no counter-balance and with no transparency.

Snowden is not a hero. If he was a hero, he would have contacted the ACLU and a couple of publicity seeking top-tier defense attorneys, and he would have used this high level support to return to the United States. This would have provoked constant front page, top-of-the-newscast coverage of this issue. Think of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

I wish Snowden had taken this route, as it would have forced a much deeper conversation. Those supporting Snowden would constantly be asking, “If Snowden broke a law, what exactly was that law and who of our elected officials approved it?” This would cause extremely high levels of squirming and linguistic hedging by many in Washington.

It is extremely disappointing that there has not been a larger, deeper national conversation about privacy, surveillance and what has and is going on. Predictably, some members of congress are expressing outrage yet others are not. ‘Freedom’ and ‘protect’ are two words that are (and will be) used a lot. Politicians know these two words will trigger Pavlovian responses. That isn’t a conversation; this is just rhetoric.

Since George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1948, we know that governments will routinely create enemies to both unite the citizenry and spy on them at the same time. [It is appropriate that sales of George Orwell’s “1984” went up 5,800% on Amazon the first week of the Snowden disclosures.] The common enemies in the last 100 years have been fascism, communism and, now, terrorism. All were valid enemies of the United States that triggered a lot of invalid spying on private citizens. However, PRISM feels a lot like the SS or the Stasi or the KGB of our enemies that wanted to take away freedom. Have we become our enemies?

It is clear to me that there will be ever less privacy as we go forward. The accelerating electronic connectedness of the planet, one of the three forces of the Shift Age, and the technologies that amplify this connectedness point to ever more personal information being shared and being available. It serves no purpose to be Luddites about such technologies.

What we need to do as a country and as members of the human race is to talk about the new landscape of today. The privacy of today is much less than that of 100, 25 or even 10 years ago, and is much more than 10 years from now. There is no turning back. We have already given up the privacy of our grandparents and parents. Instead, we need to have a refinement of the ethics of living in a world with no privacy, the one our children will inhabit. The privacy of the past is going away; we need to think through how that affects ethics and behavior. Individuals, corporations and governments must open a discussion of what privacy means in a civil society for the 21st Century.



David Houle

Called "America's Leading Futurist" David has authored four books,  including the Amazon #1 best seller "Entering the Shift Age".  He has delivered 500+ speeches  on all six continents and twelve countries and regularly leads corporate retreats about envisioning the future.  His web sites are and  His email is


  1. CWduh says:

    Only generations used to having privacy are really wrestling with this new reality, and even some of them understand the balance needed to have security having themselves lived through wars – real and cold, and our ongoing conflicts. Danny Rubin should chime in here on what he hears from the millennials.

    • Danny Rubin says:

      I think the Millennial generation is somewhat oblivious to privacy concerns. We put our lives out on the Web and can’t possibly keep track of it all.

      I imagine a lot of 20-somethings feel Google always acts in our best interest (while I’m sure isn’t true) and that the Web won’t do us harm. Plus, credit card companies are so quick at detecting theft that it almost feels like we’re protected even when things do go wrong.

  2. Paula Lynn says:

    “We have met the enemy. It is us.” We will pay more than we are willing to pay for this technology that took millennia to get us to this point and it will take technological seconds to destroy. You are unfortunately right about no turning back. It will destroy us. Google, fbeast and cohorts have absolutely no oversight and will sell you and your information to the highest bidder, well any bidder. They give you choices which consolidate, merge and acquire that lead to fewer and probably later to no choice. You are judged and condemned and cannot be erased. They or an idealogical organization will tell you what to do. You want that cancer treatment ? Then make sure you donate ___ or go to ___religious service or buy ____ or some other nefarious act/combination of the previous. “The revolution will be televised.” and it will not be sane. Only fear will be recognized.

  3. modelcircle says:

    “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
    – Benjamin Franklin

    I’m so sick of hearing that people don’t care about privacy at all and that that would make it ok or legal for these Big Brother total surveillance states to exist<
    especially strange coming from Americans who will then freak out about a national ID card

    people who have ever read a near future sci-fi book, of which some have now become reality, understands how this probably will end up and it ain't pretty

    or is the thinking now that Nazi-Germany & communist East Germany had it right when it came to surveillance?

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