Marco Werman: Zeynep Tufekci joins us often to talk about technology and society. Zeynep we wanted to catch up with you to talk about the extent of NSA surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden and the journalists he's working with and specifically whether there's a generational difference in how people are reacting to the revelation. Let's just establish our own generational biases here. I'm 52, and how old are you.
Zeynep Tufekci: I'm 42.
Werman: 42, okay. There we are. Those are the bookends. I was on a college campus last week doing a little talk and was surprised, with several Q and A sessions, no one asked anything about the NSA spying program or Snowden's revelations. None of it came up until I brought it up. Some said they just didn't feel worried about any of it even they're all connected by WIFI to this universe. Is there a generational difference?
Tufekci: I would say I find the same thing when I talk to my students or when I do surveys. The people that you're most worried about when you're 19 or when you're 15 or even in your early 20's are either your peers, your friends, what do they think about you, or people with direct power over you. They're worried about their coaches, their professors, sometimes their parents spying on them using these technologies. But the government spying on them as a concern almost never comes up unprompted in my conversations with their generation.
Werman: I asked some of them, "Didn't you have to read 1984 in high school and did that worry you?" and they say, "Yes, we did, but it doesn't worry us." It's bizarre.
Tufekci: But they don't live in a world of 1984, right? 1984 is a world of a totalitarian state where people are being dragged in the middle of the night and cages of rats are being placed their heads. So 1984 is misleading. If that was happening, if there was really truly state terror, they would be worried too. I think part of the reason they're not worried is that they live in a modern democracy. They feel like citizens. The threats posed by NSA surveillance are a lot more subtle.
Werman: Some of the kids said that 9/11 changed a lot in terms of privacy vs. security. I can't argue with that, but they also pointed out that they were only 4 or 5 when 9/11 happened, so it wasn't like they are reacting to a "before and after" scenario. They only know the "after".
Tufekci: But again, the powers that they're most concerned about are the ones that they encounter in their day to day lives. The state, for them, is an abstraction. It doesn't even cross their minds as much and why should it? There's no interaction between them and their everyday lives and some database in Utah which might be scooping up every click, but it has not consequence for them as far as they can see.
Werman: Why do you think it seems inconsequential? You teach at University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill. Obama was there last year talking about government grants for college education. They know their connection to the government.
Tufekci: Yes, but they have not had the experience of a government that has used surveillance in a way that's directly observable to them. Even - here comes another generational thing - things like the Watergate scandal, which exposed a lot of government spying and surveillance being used, domestic dissonance, it scared the previous generations. I think to get scared of government surveillance, you have to have a direct experience of it and that's not what we're facing. It requires a lot more thinking through and understanding and some historical and political memory to fear the true threat.
Werman: Do you find exceptions to this? Such as in China because the extent of spying is so well known.
Tufekci: Yes, in places like China, in places like my home country, Turkey, which has passed a massive internet surveillance law, the level of awareness and wariness of government surveillance is very high. When you talk to people in Turkey it comes up immediately. They assume the government's spying on them, the people are wary of them, people are thinking about what to do. It's true also in a place like China where people are really concerned about it because they've seen the direct power of this kind of surveillance.
I think that's what we haven't come to grips with. When I teach about the NSA surveillance, the students are horrified. They didn't know about it, they don't like it. The idea that they're just fine with it is certainly not true. They don't like it, they wish it wouldn't happen, but they can't really get their mind to grasp it. It's just easier for them to say, "Well, I hope my government doesn't do anything wrong with it" and kind of shrug and go on.
Werman: Zeynep, always great to speak with you, thanks a lot.
Tufekci: Thank you.