Tuesday, 11 June 2013

U.S.: Prism Scandal & Civil Rights/Liberties

South of Utah's Great Salt Lake, the National Security Agency (NSA), a United States' foreign intelligence service, keeps watch over one of its most expensive secrets. Here, on 100,000 square meters (1,100,000 square feet) near the US military's Camp Williams, the NSA is constructing enormous buildings to house superfast computers. All together, the project will cost around $2 billion (€1.5 billion) and the computers will be capable of storing a gigantic volume of data, at least 5 billion gigabytes. The energy needed to power the cooling system for the servers alone will cost $40 million a year.

The facility would soon store personal data on people from all over the world and keep it for decades. This includes emails, Skype conversations, Google searches, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, bank transfers -- electronic data of every kind. James Clapper, the country's director of national intelligence, has confirmed the existence of a large-scale surveillance program. President Barack Obama further explained that Congress authorized the program -- but that American citizens are exempt from it.

In the secret document, the NSA's surveillance program is referred to by the name "Prism." A prism is also the shape that reflects light in fiber optic cables -- the same cables that form the backbone of the world's Internet traffic. The document, which was authored for an internal NSA presentation, shows that even data streams traveling from Europe to Asia, the Pacific region or South America often pass through servers in the US. "A target's phone call, email or chat will take the cheapest path, not the physically most direct path," the document reads.

The Bush administration legalized this new dimension to government snooping, but it was the Obama administration that renewed the law in question in December 2012. The law permits, for example, the surveillance of all Google users not living in the US, as well as communications between American citizens and people in other countries.

A top-secret document published last week by the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian shows where the NSA may be getting the majority of its data. According to the document, which was allegedly leaked by former CIA employee Edward Snowden, the intelligence agency began seeking out direct access to servers belonging to American Internet companies on a wide scale in 2007.

The first of these companies to come onboard was Microsoft. Yahoo followed half a year later, then Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype and AOL. The most recent company to declare its willingness to cooperate was Apple, in October 2012, according to the secret government document, which proudly states that this access to data is achieved "directly from the servers" of the companies.

The companies in question denied that claim on Friday. But if what the document says is true, the NSA has the potential to know what every person in the world who uses these companies' services is doing

These reports are deeply disconcerting. When viewed in its entirety, this massive effort to acquire information, if it is true, would be dangerous. On the weekend, President Obama reacted by saying that it is impossible to have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. I don't share this view. The more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is. In a democratic constitutional state, security is not an end in itself, but serves to secure freedom.

America has been a different country since the horrible terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The country's security architecture was drastically restructured. One goal was to link all institutions and create a broad flow of information among the different security agencies. The relationship between freedom and security has shifted, to the detriment of freedom, especially as a result of the Patriot Act, which was introduced only a few days after 9/11.

The Patriot Act is essentially a number of legislative packages passed in rapid succession. They expanded the opportunities for surveillance, just as they created the possibility of imprisonment for the purpose of preventing acts of terror. As much as we want counterterrorism efforts to be effective, there has to be a reasonable balance between security and the freedom of citizens. The Patriot Act significantly limited the civil rights of Americans.

The development was repeatedly criticized internationally. President Obama, a lawyer specializing in US constitutional law, was also critical of this development in the past. But the restrictions on civil rights and liberties enacted in connection with President George W. Bush's "War on Terror" have not been reversed since Obama became president.

The American politician and author Benjamin Franklin once wrote: "Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The suspicion of excessive surveillance of communication is so alarming that it cannot be ignored. For that reason, openness and clarification by the US administration itself should be paramount at this point. All facts must be put on the table.  The global Internet has become indispensible for a competitive economy, the sharing of information and the strengthening of human rights in authoritarian countries. But our trust in these technologies threatens to be lost in the face of comprehensive surveillance activities.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit AFP: U.S President Barack Hussein Obama