After last week's mainstream news coverage of the new Utah datacenter being built for the NSA, I started getting contacted by all sorts of people who were concerned that their very souls were at stake and that their privacy would be compromised in such a way that the government would know everything that they were doing. And these messages weren't even from my friends who have heavy investments in tin foil.
It seems that a somewhat public claim that the datacenter would give the government the ability to track and store information about every citizen was putting people in a tizzy. Many of the emails I received asked if it was true that the government would be reading their email (this seemed like the No. 1 concern of friends and relatives that like to send me chain emails and old internet hoaxes); a lot simply expressed concern that all this data would be stored and the government would sift through it to discover their deep dark secrets.
Now technically, much of what these people were worried about requires a warrant. Even if it didn't, sorting out the actual criminal information from petabytes worth of trivia is a daunting task, even for today's supercomputers. But what really stood out was how little the average person understands about modern data collection methods and how much data already resides in databases out there that they have freely given up.
I found it really humorous that many of the "oh no, they're reading my email" messages came from people using Gmail. I don't know how many times its been pointed out that those targeted ads that Gmail users get are targeted by using data collection techniques against the contents of the users email.
And a significant portion of the emails I received were from friends and acquaintances that regularly post about their lives, in minute detail, on Facebook. Apparently, they labor under some misapprehension that what they post online remains forever under their control.
And when I asked, just about every person I talked to said "yes" to the question about store loyalty or rewards cards. So after years of giving up detailed information on their buying habits and filling out online surveys, they somehow think that the government is going to find out something new about them that doesn't already exist in a commercial database somewhere.
And these are just the primary ways that most people are already giving up all the details of their life. People write all sorts of disclaimers in things that they put online, as if those "you can't use this information for anything" paragraphs have any real value.
The bottom line is pretty much this: Yes, the government can build facilities that will potentially have the capability to seriously invade your privacy. But why should they bother when the vast majority of the country is already giving up that information freely?