US. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) is surrounded by photographers after arriving at a Senate Committee hearing, June 12, 2013. The committee was hearing testimony on Cybersecurity from Gen. Keith Alexander and other officials. — AFP Photo.
A poster supporting Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked revelations of U.S. electronic surveillance, is displayed at Hong Kong's financial Central district June 17, 2013. — Reuters Photo.
It’s reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel '1984', but it’s real life – the US government's extensive surveillance programme also applied to foreign citizens, and Pakistan is no exception.
As a result of the US government’s PRISM and Boundless Informant programme, nearly 13.5 billion pieces of “intelligence” were collected in Pakistan in just one month, including online information and telephone metadata, or information about the location, time, and duration of a phone call. In a country of 180 million, this could mean any number of people's data could possibly have been checked any number of times.
Though the Foreign Office of Pakistan and the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC have asked for an explanation from the US government, experts do not anticipate any change in the global monitoring programme.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recent disclosure by former contractor, Edward Snowden, about the expansive US espionage against its own people have sparked calls for protest by Americans – but spying on other countries perceived to be ‘sources of terrorism’ have not evoked a similar passion amongst the American public.
Yet, activists in Pakistan working to protect digital rights and privacy have criticised the US government’s program through an online petition that has been signed by groups including Bolo Bhi and the Digital Rights Foundation. The government of Pakistan has also responded to the revelations through the Foreign Office, which has requested an explanation from the US embassy in Islamabad. Further, Ahmed Hotiana, the spokesperson for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC, stated that “We have taken up the matter with the US to obtain more details on the programme and await their response.” This indicates that the Pakistani government’s reaction has also been relatively muted.
Some experts see little hope for the US reacting positively to these requests by the Pakistani government. Retired Colonel Morris Davis, professor of law at Howard University, explained that President Barack Obama’s administration has ignored complaints about its use of drones to kill people in foreign lands, and therefore, he stated that “I see no reason to believe they will be any more responsive to complaints about snatching electrons.”
Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, simply stated “Complaints from the Foreign Office alone won’t likely bring about any changes,” because “Washington is not known for changing course based on negative feedback from the Foreign Ministry.” He further explained that the US “has its own compelling reasons for continuing the surveillance policy that go beyond what any one country may say.”
However, Kugelman asserts that the revelations about the US global surveillance program will “only worsen America’s image” amongst Pakistanis and “harden existing hostilities.” He stated that reconnaissance programmes lend credibility to the popular narrative in Pakistan describing the US as a “meddling and snooping superpower.” He went onto explain that there is now apparent proof that “American intelligence goes beyond monitoring the Pakistani government and militant organizations, and now includes keeping tabs on the communications of private citizens.”
It appears that the revelations, which have caused a media uproar in general, will have an effect on Pak-US relations, as the honeymoon period between Nawaz Sharif’s newly elected administration and the US comes to a close. Kugelman explains that there will be a short-term effect, and the issue will be raised by Pakistani officials with Secretary of State John Kerry, who is set to visit Pakistan this month.
Yet, Kugelman explains that “cooler heads will prevail,” as Pakistan will notice that it was not singularly targeted by the US global monitoring programme, which also conducted expansive surveillance in India and Jordan, both seen as close allies of the US.
Kevin Gosztolaa, a journalist covering security and state secrets, believes that the NSA revelations will not irreparably harm America’s diplomatic relations with nations like Pakistan. He explains that the US was able to rebound from the release of Wikileaks “which was a much greater threat to America’s credibility” than the current revelations, and will likely do so in this instance.
While many have expressed their surprise and indignation at the US surveillance program, others have treated recent disclosures as mere proof of their long-running suspicions. Kugelman explains that “there may be a ho-hum effect as well—many Pakistanis may simply shrug off the latest revelations as more of the same: The US is always snooping around Pakistan, so what difference does this all make?”
Gosztola echoed this sentiment by stating the NSA disclosures merely “confirm what many Pakistanis probably already know— that their country is a battlefield in the US government's ‘war on terrorism’.”
In a way, the 'War on Terror' mixed with the proliferation of technology has laid the groundwork for the US to conduct such extensive surveillance on its own citizens, as well as foreign citizens from other nations. Colonel Davis states that “Technological innovation has outpaced policy development in the period after 9/11… just as Twitter and other innovations have enabled ordinary people to better communicate and share information, technology has also given governments greater power to mine that data for any number of reasons.” He concludes that the US is “still grappling with where the boundaries should be; where to strike the balance between liberty and security.”
Similarly, Pakistan has seen a bourgeoning of technology as well as terrorism, and could learn a few lessons from the US post-9/11 example. Colonel Morris states that “the lesson other countries can take away from the US experience is the need to communicate with their citizens. The reaction in the US to the recent revelations about government surveillance is driven more by the public being kept in the dark about the programmes rather than the particulars of the programmes. Citizens have a right to know, at least in general terms, what their government is doing in their name.”
While the Pakistani government, its citizens, and internet activists are justified in their reaction to the all-pervasive surveillance, they should know that their protests will probably not stop the US government’s global surveillance activities.
However, there is a lesson that can be learned from the US for countries like Pakistan dealing with terrorism: that they should carefully balance privacy rights and security while involving citizens, rather than keeping them uninformed about measures that seem designed to ensure their security but sacrifice their privacy.