In the World of Privacy and Security

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Namita Narkar's picture

In the World of Privacy and Security

You had always believed that your online footprint was never intruded upon, and then you learn that every move you made on the internet was being tracked. Every conversation you got into, either on landline or on mobile phone, was being recorded. The man, with access to the intelligence data gathered by an intelligence agency, revealing this is on the run. Millions are supporting him for raising their privacy concerns, and millions are still arguing over should he be called a traitor or a whistleblower. He has been hopping continents looking for a solace to escape from the claws of a powerful democracy. To add to it, countries having disdain for privacy are safeguarding him. Sounds fiction? But the plot is arresting. Even the greatest of the authors could not have spun such a tale.

Edward Snowden, a former technical contactor of the US National Security Agency (NSA), through a series of informative pieces provided the details of the secret surveillance programmes run by the US and the UK governments. The public and press have lost the plot on Snowden’s revelations. His service, considered either public or uncivil, has attracted enough ignominy to shroud the real issue. The story now is not Edward Snowden but what implications those revelations have for you and me. We have become aware of the scope of such surveillance programmes and hence need to understand how they affect our privacy and security. This essay delves deeper into the issue but begins by taking a look at Snowden’s so far struggle and the reasons it seems to be growing less heroic with each passing day.  

Snowden’s Ironic Journey

After having revealed to the world how the US has built an astonishingly privacy invading programme, Snowden escaped. Surprisingly, the countries he approached were those that express only contempt for the values he his fighting for. For instance, Russia, who is currently holding Snowden, is an example of a nation that refrains from adopting international norms. Other nations – Bolivia, Ecuador, or Venezuela – that he had appealed to are those with strict laws against media freedom and are not much different from Russia. Doesn’t this reflect flaws in his support seeking strategy?

One of the famous whistleblowers who shaped history, Daniel Ellsberg leaked in 1971 a top-secret government study called Pentagon Papers, which had the US government’s rationale behind its decisions during the Vietnam War. On releasing the documents, Ellsberg went into hiding, but then surrendered himself in two weeks. Ellsberg too was aware of the outcome and he faced it by yielding himself. Later in a 1998 interview, Ellsberg said, “The public is lied to every day by the President, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can't handle the thought that the President lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn't stay in the government at that level.”

In his essay, Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” If Snowden believed that he is the one who could change the law then why is he not facing the consequences of his actions? Unlike Ellsberg, who faced a trial, Snowden has chosen to avoid the US justice system. If Snowden wants to fight for the privacy of his fellow citizens, he needs to subject himself to the US judiciary. Playing as an international fugitive only undermines his intention of triggering this furore.    

Spying: A Perplexing Name

The secret communications data interception programmes – PRISM, Boundless Informant, and Tempora – that Snowden has spoken of has left many of us disturbed and thus requires us to know how they operate. These programs have a global reach and they work by intercepting data on cellular and online traffic originating from several countries around the world. The concerned authorities do not tap individual calls or read emails, since that requires a warrant from a judge. However, they use the obtained data to monitor the communication that takes place over the internet or the phone. The key objective is to use this metadata to establish suspicious correlations if any. Only on observing dubious patterns can the authorities raise requests to access the content that is hinting a probable crime or a terrorist attack. If we study the “Heat Maps” of the Boundless Informant, the areas that rank higher for the greater level data interception (i.e. Redder in colour) are the ones that sponsor terrorism.

It is unfortunate that regardless of its purposes, spying draws criticism. In this case, much of the anger is attributed to the manner these programs have been portrayed. For nations to possess intelligence gathering and surveillance mechanisms to monitor within their boundaries is a commonplace. We as members of the society even accept the presence of closed circuit TV cameras in offices, shopping malls, and railway stations. Then why a tough resistance to these programmes that go a step further to curb atrocities? Although what merits attention is that involved countries must stress on appropriate information exchange, and in case of terrorist planning evidences the US authorities must assist the targeted countries and act upon it.   

Choosing between Privacy and Security – A difficult trade off

A flat and an interlinked world deeply penetrated by online networks demands an equally penetrated surveillance system. Come to think of it. Is it possible to live in a world of absolute privacy? May be yes. But then we cannot lament over government’s inability to fight the terrorism menace. On the other hand, living with no privacy at all is also discomforting. Sadly, no one can define an optimal extent at which privacy and security can co-exist. So let alone striking a balance!

With growing technology developments, it is not acceptable to not to use the benefits that are at your disposal. In fact, the only alternative to these programmes is then to help terrorists in their missions.

Edward Snowden has certainly performed a critical service. Now, it is up to us to not to obfuscate the real issue.