Protecting Privacy from State Snooping

By Prabhakar Timble
07 August 2013 03:04 IST

The outrage on the revelations made by Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower and IT contractor that the National Security Agency has been scooping data on American and foreigners has been far below the height and depth that was expected considering its implications on the right to privacy and the freedoms that are held as sacred as a concomitant of  democracy. The extremist decision of the US government to cancel the passport and declare the whistleblower as a thief and fugitive could be an indicator of the threat that the NSA surveillance programme poses to privacy of citizens and security of other nations. The attempt of the US government is to conceal rather than come out clean with explanation. The denial of asylum to Snowden by almost all nations of the world which are considered to be civilized and prime owners of democracy was shocking.  It could possibly be a display that these democracies cannot afford to displease US and the President Barack Obama administration.

The charge against Snowden is of theft of classified documents.  It is revealed that NSA used a variety of methods to spy on embassies of other countries including friendly nations in gross violation of conventions on diplomatic relations. The democratic nations including India have refused to criticize. On the contrary, they have defended it as permissible spying.  The ‘theft’ of NSA was wrapped under spying for good of the world. After 9/11, any type of surveillance and cyber scrutiny is considered as acceptable. Still, statelessness should not be imposed as a punishment for a crime of political nature. Like in a game of chess, it would have been a checkmate for Edward Snowden if it was not Russia making the humanitarian bail to provide asylum to this informant.

Only the passage of time will testify whether the NSA data mining of phone and internet communication was a gross abuse of spying. This undercover surveillance could emerge as the scandal worse than the wiretapping of the Democratic Party Headquarters, known to the world as the “Watergate”.  Spying in the skies cannot be washed off as an internal affair of the US as it has repercussions on privacy and private space of citizens as well as security and secrecy demands of all the nations.  

Competitive intelligence

Intelligence and information gathering for business, diplomacy and security threat perception is age old. Media attention has been largely superficial and shallow to the rise in business spying which goes under the banner of business strategy as competitive intelligence. There is no need to physically break into offices today or plant employees. Determined spies or thieves can break into the computer network and penetrate into information. This is made possible by the revolution in video, optics and spectacular strides in electronics. What is communicated can be intercepted, what is moved can be visually captured as the skies store information sent by phone, radio, telex, internet, CCTV and the one electronically exchanged.  In this era of information technology, global business giants collect and process patterns of rivals, their customers, suppliers, business strategies and plans. Business espionage is on the rise and independently it is emerging as a growing service industry. Apart from recruited information processors, multinationals hire services of firms engaged in spying. This goes under the tolerable banner of competitive intelligence.

Alvin Toffler, an expert in futurology provides insights in his monumental work “Powershift” and predicts that the not so distant future will see a fusion of government and private business intelligence on a scale never before known in the capitalist economies and foretells that the line between public i.e. governmental and private espionage will continue to blur. The critical areas of surveillance would be in the realm of economics, technology, ecology and security. As we continue to have nations led by terrorists or dictators or by fanatics, democracies cannot survive without secrets and secret services.  Reconciling and balancing freedom of information versus secrecy and right to privacy versus national security would be the central global political issues of the future. This will be the challenge for all conventional ideas about democracy, freedom and transparency.

Guarding private space

In the global espionage industry, the U.S. is dominant. PRISM, the US code name for mass electronic surveillance data mining programme is used on any domestic or foreign target without any warrant or sanction. Goggle, Yahoo and Microsoft which makes the bulk of the internet infrastructure is based in the US. The scope of illegal intelligence gathering and further of leakage and sale is not difficult unless systems and mechanisms are put in place.

Dilution of right to privacy is the future reality. Advances in communication technology have brought the world closer and facilitated transparency. At the same time it makes possible intrusion into bedrooms and private spaces. As an example, CCTV aids employee watch, crime detection, customer supervision and surveillance of all citizens. This footage could be also leaked and sold for a price for altogether different purposes.  Unregulated use of even a simple communication gadget such as the CCTV can spell doom for privacy. Assuming that government will use spying only for security reasons, private capital could peep into private lives and make a business out of footage.

Edward Snowden has rung the bell for the world to listen. Just as no domestic economy today can be totally insulated from global effects, issues of personal privacy and national security need to be resolved at the global level. The international community of nations should come together to address these issues and adopt binding laws with mechanisms for redress of grievances.

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Prabhakar Timble

Mr Prabhakar Timble is an educationist and a legal expert. He has served several educational institutions, especially as the Principal of Government College at Quepem, Kare College of Law in Madgao as well as couple of Management Institutes. He was also the State Election Commissioner of Goa.

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