Opinion: Beyond PRISM

Published June 27, 2013
The National Security Agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. — Reuters Photo
The National Security Agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. — Reuters Photo

It has been a few weeks since Edward Snowden boarded a plane for Hong Kong. In the days that followed, the world learnt about the existence of PRISM, a secret data surveillance program run by America’s National Security Agency (NSA) since the last five years. It targets phone companies and at least nine large consumer internet services companies including Facebook, Google and Apple, and allegedly allows the NSA direct access to their servers.

Since the appearance of the first leaks, which documented the existence of the program and the companies which participate in it, there have been retractions and contradicting statements made by virtually all parties. Government officials have confirmed the existence of the program and the companies have all vehemently denied any involvement in it. Most of them are now rolling out public statements to absolve themselves from all responsibility, hence public backlash and subsequent attrition in their user base. Even here, under the cloud of promoting transparency, the motive is to retain the users which propel these companies towards profitability.

The custodians claim that the program only targets people who are not living in the US, even though it is collecting, or has access to everyone’s information. The world is supposed to believe that the operators of a secret spying program, which collects data without a warrant and violates privacy whenever there is reasonable suspicion, will respect the privacy of the people because they are US citizens. If so, doesn’t this leave a glaring hole in the security apparatus by increasing the probability of domestic terrorist acts?

There has been no public address with compunction, but a series of despotic statements under the ‘threat of safety’ umbrella. The NSA Director has stated that this method of surveillance has prevented over 50 terrorist attacks. Moreover, in addition to the customary defensive remarks about keeping America safe, and the ever-present threat of tireless terrorists, the President of the United States took to television to talk about the limits of what can be collected, without mentioning that these limits are entirely self-imposed, and no one can verify if they are adhered to or not. That PRISM was approved by Congress and is thus technically legal is somehow supposed to make it absolutely business as usual.

The BBC website provides a concise infographic about the nature of access the governments have, as it pertains to different forms of communication. Frankly, whether this is true or whether the governments have 100 per cent unrestricted access to every word we type, speak or write is more a matter of what we are told. Apart from a leaked DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) memo, which refers to some of Apple’s encryption as ‘uncrackable’, there isn’t much to suggest that they don’t have carte blanche access and control to all our communication material, irrespective of its form. The reach of the data gathering efforts is impressive, and if scrutinized collectively, has tremendous implications for the future of consumer cloud computing, specifically for American companies. While things will probably plod along, with most of the sentiment dying down as the public loses interest in the story, this fiasco does present boundless opportunities for startups and established firms in other countries. With trust being a major factor for certain consumer groups, this could be advantageous to firms other than the obvious ones providing security and cryptography applications. ‘Line’ is a Japanese social network which reached an impressive 50 million users in 399 days, making it the fastest growing social network in the world. Given the behavioural nature of internet use, it isn’t a stretch to assume that those users can/will be weaned off Facebook, assuming they are existing Facebook users. Line is now downloaded in over 40 countries.

Media coverage of the PRISM scandal has been dichotomous, with the US agencies placing more emphasis on the security repercussions, and the international media outlets focusing on data protection laws and the exchanges between officials of various countries. Today, the news outlets are tracking the alleged movement of Edward Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow, as he purportedly seeks asylum in Ecuador. This isn’t about branding Edward Snowden a traitor or a hero. He’s now been charged with espionage amongst other things. This side story is more to deflect attention from the real issue; that almost all digital communication is policed by a single entity with a very specific, self-serving agenda, and it can disregard anyone’s privacy at will. The fact that there hasn’t been a public outrage illustrates how deeply manipulated most of the population already is. Turkey is currently experiencing a meltdown because the government wants to take away a public park. Here, the government has taken away personal privacy and there have been virtually no civilian protests. Perhaps we ourselves are to blame for this state of affairs.

For at least the last decade, we have voluntarily immersed ourselves in a Data Economy by embracing the free version of the internet. Rather than money, we used our personal data as currency for transactions and services. In 2004, Gmail disrupted the then cemented e-mail landscape by providing significantly more space in exchange for perusing the contents of your e-mail and presenting ads which the system determined as relevant. Also in 2004, Facebook gave us a free social network, but only if we fed it with a trove of our personal information. It warrants a mention that Facebook has been guilty of selling that private information. With the passage of time, more of us have gotten accustomed to forgoing some percentage of our personal information in return for convenience. As those numbers shift continuously, it is getting harder to gauge and differentiate, but the notion is getting cemented in society, especially now that an entire generation has grown with the aforementioned ingrained, and it is they who are raising the next generation.

The trouble is that we’ve been through similar issues before, and no one seems to care too much, or for too long. There was a substantial protest when it was learnt that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was using nude body scanners at airports to detect various types of concealed objects. The government’s stance, following the backlash, was to issue a directive requiring all Advanced Imaging Technology Scanners to be equipped with Automated Target Recognition which would mask whatever parts of the body were thought to be inappropriate. Even though the response wasn’t anywhere close to immediate, public interest waned almost immediately. The controversial drone strikes were initially opposed by certain factions in the US, yet most people are either indifferent, or in favour of them, based almost entirely on what they are told, or read in the news or on the internet.

By including all non-U.S personnel as the target of the program, and the US population’s silent acceptance of it, the government is creating a reality in which a stake is going to be driven further between Americans and the rest of the world. It endorses the thinking that non-Americans are a threat to Americans. These policies are created behind closed doors with substantial dissonance to the societal impact. They end up creating hostility by means of the discrimination people start to experience. The TSA is notorious for their ‘random’ extra screening, so much that the Sikh community launched FlyRights, a real-time, air travel discrimination reporting app. The Hispanic community was the unofficial target of Republican Governor Jan Brewer’s controversial immigration law in Arizona, which allowed for questioning and detainment of anyone found without documents proving legal immigration status, if they were deemed to be ‘reasonably suspicious’. With each such passing incident and law, it fuels the xenophobia that has been growing undeniably since 9/11.

When a populace tolerates its government violating another’s country’s sovereignty under a falsified pretext, when it tolerates the blatant disregard for human rights under the guise of patriotism, when it rationalises murdering innocents as collateral damage, it won’t sputter too much when its own privacy is invaded by the same group, if they claim to subvert terrorism. The results of a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center seem to be somewhat in line with this hypothesis.

The government might be selling ‘safety’ right now but it’s buying ‘alienation’ in the long run. The phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is just a catchy sound bite. In truth, it revolves more around ‘If different, suspected guilty until proven innocent’.

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