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All about Prism, Internet privacy and -- wait! -- squirrel!

Some people are deeply upset about the latest incursions into our privacy. But as a society, we don't seem to care all that much.

July 1, 2013 08:31 AM ET

Computerworld - As the saga surrounding the revelations about the National Security Agency's Prism program unfolded, I half expected a public figure to arise and declaim, a la Howard Beale in the movie Network, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

I'm still waiting.

The story is getting plenty of attention from the media. Reporters are playing "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" with the elusive whistleblower/spy (take your pick) Edward Snowden. But do you care?

On June 10, the day that Britain's Guardian newspaper revealed Snowden's identity, the 10 most searched terms, according to Google Trends, were: iOS7, PS4, Tim Tebow, Mac Pro, Kingdom Hearts, Miami Heat, IGN, Chad Johnson, NBA Playoffs, and the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).

NSA, Snowden, privacy, all that stuff -- none of it even made the top 20.

And the government hardly has a corner on the privacy-breaching market. Even as we continue to learn more about how the NSA collects data on U.S. citizens, we are also hearing about Facebook's shadow profiles, which collate data about you even if you're not on Facebook, and Google Glass seems to have a lot of people twitchy.

But do you really care? Or are you more like my dogs, who can be distracted at any moment by a rustling in the leaves. "Oh, look, a squirrel!" their alert little faces seem to say.

There's some hard evidence that all this privacy stuff just doesn't alarm us all that much. Take a look at some surveys. According to the Pew Research Center, "A majority of Americans -- 56% -- say the National Security Agency's (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority -- 41% -- say it is unacceptable." So most of us are cool with wiretapping.

But we're not as happy about someone peeking at our Internet usage. Pew found that "45% say the government should be able to 'monitor everyone's email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks.' About as many (52%) say the government should not able to do this."

Another survey, the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, conducted before the NSA revelations, found that 85% of U.S. residents said they were worried about unauthorized access by the government and corporations to personal information like phone records, emails and Web activity.

But, that number isn't as impressive as you might think. The same survey found that more than two-thirds of us have no problem with exposing personal data in return for gaining the benefits of social networking and IM/video chat services. We also really don't object to advertisers knowing more about us if that means our Web pages will give us more relevant, targeted ads.

Of course, I have to keep in mind that what we say in a survey and what we do in real life are often two different things. Sadly, I believe that in this case we actually care even less about Internet privacy than these numbers reveal.

Yes, I know, some people care passionately. I'm one of them. But I'm cynical enough to know that the idea of privacy that I grew up with has little to do with privacy in today's world of big data, traffic analysis and ubiquitous social networking.

For many, the real questions of the day depend on the opposite of privacy: "Did you know that Full House star Jodie Sweetin has filed for divorce?" "Can you believe that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West named their baby North -- so she's North West?"

If you work in IT, though, and you have to start working out how to handle your company's security or how to manage privacy on your staff's BYOD tablets and smartphones, just keep one thing in mind: You'd better care about corporate security and privacy, because your users almost certainly don't.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

Read more about Privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.



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