To me, the real story about PRISM is that people are surprised. Sure, it’s appalling, but this is the same government operating Guantanamo bay. It would be more shocking if they had had a sudden outbreak of morality.

The interesting thing with these mass surveillance programs to stop terrorists is they are subject to a counter intuitive piece of statistics called the base rate fallacy. The example on the Wikipedia page uses a terrorism detection system! The base rate fallacy applies to the process of looking for a very small number of people in a very large population. In such a situation, the false positive rate has to be unrealistically low, otherwise it will just keep identifying false positives all day. The TL;DR is that terrorism detection systems are basically useless because they will almost always detect non-terrorists.

The NSA is full of smart people with maths PhDs who know perfectly well what the base rate fallacy is. And yet, they still built this system. That should tell you all you need to know about its intent. It’s about being able to spy on arbitrary people who are deemed ‘troublesome’.

“I have solved this political dilemma in a very direct way: I don’t vote. On Election Day, I stay home. I firmly believe that if you vote, you have no right to complain. Now, some people like to twist that around. They say, ‘If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain,’ but where’s the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent politicians, and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You voted them in. You caused the problem. You have no right to complain. I, on the other hand, who did not vote — who did not even leave the house on Election Day — am in no way responsible for what these politicians have done and have every right to complain about the mess that you created.”

— George Carlin


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