Skip to main content

The babble goes on. And on and on. Social media and e-mail make us chatty, catty and flippant.

Me, I assume – like most of us – that somebody, somewhere, has the ability to look at what I write, even privately. What would the snoopers see? Well, sarcastic remarks about English soccer players and even more sarcastic remarks about the CBC. Expressions of worship for FC Barcelona. Sometimes, civil and literate discussion of matters Irish – writers, books, plays. All of it boring babble, really.

Part of the issue with the snooping is that we have become accustomed to being followed online by commercial enterprises. Last year when I realized that a certain favourite type of Jockey underwear was being taken off the market, I did some online looking for it. And, for months, it seemed, Jockey underwear followed me as I surfed the Internet, researching all kinds of things. Not an unnerving experience, but amusing. It just happens.

There is nothing amusing about what Edward Snowden revealed. The mass invasion of privacy, the constant, mind-boggling collection of data, is the biggest issue of our time. We should never underestimate what Snowden did.

Frontline: United States of Secrets (PBS, 10 p.m.) is part of Frontline's excellent and damning investigation into the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance campaign. This program examines how the NSA got all that data and, in particular, the secret relationship between Silicon Valley and the National Security Agency.

It opens with a vivid description of Edward Snowden's meeting with Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, and others, in Hong Kong. Also, there were the Guardian's Ewen MacAskill and filmmaker Laura Poitras. As MacAskill describes it, Snowden was horrified when MacAskill pulled out an iPhone. "Get that out of the room as quickly as possible," Snowden snapped.

Then the reporters began to assess what information Snowden had, and how toxic it might be. As it is explained to us, a key moment was when Snowden showed them a document, a direction to Verizon to turn customers' phone records over to the NSA. Right there, they knew they had stunning news to report.

What Snowden revealed contradicted what the NSA had said. It had denied it gathered the communications of ordinary citizens. Greenwald speculates that the NSA's denial was, for Snowden, the final straw. He knew the truth.

The meat of the program is an attempt to answer these questions – how did tech giants react when the government asked them to turn over data on millions of ordinary American citizens? And how much do companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo really know about you? The answers are deeply troubling. It emerges that such companies as AT&T and Verizon see themselves as in partnership with the U.S. government. As one tech expert says, "No one at these companies is losing sleep about this issue."

We are told about one small Web-hosting company that received an order from the NSA to reveal a ton of information. No judge had issued the order. And the company CEO was told that he could not even tell another person that he had received the order. That same year, we're told, the FBI had issued more than 50,000 of those orders.

It seems that no tech company – Google, Yahoo and others – ever challenged the orders. They complied. And the point is made that while the NSA was asking for data, the big Internet companies were busy compiling data for their own commercial reasons. Collusion made perfect sense because the data were already being collected. In another context, what Google does to your e-mail would be called a "wiretap." But in the contemporary Internet world, the idea of privacy has disappeared.

This Frontline is must-see TV. Disturbing and creepy, it forces you to rethink what social media is and where it takes us. There we are, being all chatty and catty and flippant. And very foolish as we do it.

Also airing tonight

Prince of Wales: The Conversation with George Stroumboulopoulos (CBC, 8 p.m.) is, as advertised, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales talking to the guy who used to be known as "Canada's boyfriend," or something. We're told that Prince Charles "discusses his love for Canada and its people, multiculturalism and diversity, his charity work, his sense of duty, and also touches on several of his passions, including architecture, organic food and public service." Apparently, he asserts that he "might be able to contribute a little bit here and there to Canadian life." In a stroke of programming genius, two new Coronation Street episodes will air in advance of the interview special, starting at 7 p.m.

All times ET. Check local listings.

Interact with The Globe