As you may have heard, the Obama administration has been outed as ambitiously Big Brother-ish, overseeing a National Security Agency surveillance program which essentially scoops user data from every major online source — Facebook, Google, Skype, even Apple — and puts it into the world’s largest personal information database. (This, surprisingly, means Facebook is probably only the second largest such database.)
There’s an inevitable furore in the press, as there should be, but I think — as I’ve warned before — that people are asking the wrong questions about the latest scandal. The reality is that the sort of pervasive surveillance which the U.S. government now stands accused of dabbling in was inevitable, and is only going to get worse — bigger, more intrusive, more pervasive. Maybe even more secret.
The first problem with the latest spy scandal is, as I’ve repeatedly stated over the past several weeks, that the majority of people don’t care. They won’t say so — especially Republicans — but the reality is that a very small minority both (a) votes and (b) would vote differently based on the latest scandal. Indeed, we’ve reached the point where the party system can’t eliminate a program like PRISM in the United States: it was set up by Bush, and maintained and expanded by Obama, so unless you’re willing to vote for a (basically non-existent) third party over this, you’re hooped. Live with it. Which most people will. Outside of libertarian and Tea Party circles, and maybe not even there, it’s hard to imagine people genuinely care about this. Not people who were already active on Facebook, anyways.
The more serious issue is this, though: pervasive surveillance is rapidly becoming so easy, and so cheap, that it’s foolhardy to imagine governments resisting the temptation to engage in it. The only real difficulty is getting everyone to play along — and that obviously wasn’t a serious problem when it came to Facebook, or Google, or Apple, or Microsoft, or Skype, just to name a few. So in fact, there are no real difficulties.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you want to build a database containing every text message sent by every American, every day. Apparently, the average American sends 42 text messages per day. (For what it’s worth, I send zero, and I feel very, very old now, despite being under 30.) Let’s further assume that every text message generates 500 characters of text, which is probably an extremely high figure. Now, 300 million Americans times 21 kilobytes of text equals 6.3 terabytes of information per day.
Right now, in a retail store, you can get a two terabyte hard drive for $100, on sale. So even if you’re paying retail rates for your surveillance database, which seems unlikely, you can store every text message sent by every American for around $300 a day.
If that still seems unlikely to you, consider that that amounts to 2.3 petabytes per year of data. Almost two years ago, IBM built a 120-petabyte hard drive cluster in California “for an unnamed customer.”