Friday, June 28, 2013

We’re all ears

The fate of Edward Snowden, the contractor who leaked information on National Security Agency (NSA) programs to gather massive amounts of information on Americans and non-Americans alike, continues to make headlines. The Obama administration has succeeded in turning the NSA story into one about Snowden himself, who for some unexplainable reason now stands accused of espionage. He is viewed by many of his countrymen as suspect for having traveled to Moscow, and for perhaps intending to fly on to Ecuador, via Havana.

China, from where Snowden escaped, Russia, and Ecuador are hardly shining examples of democracy, and have frequently opposed the United States. But Matthew Feeney has observed on the Reason website that we shouldn’t assume that Snowden’s behavior implies sympathy for the three countries. “At this point, he's just trying to avoid ending up in a cage on American soil. If he can do that while steering clear of a police state, he surely will,” wrote Feeney.

The difficulty the Obama administration has been having in getting international backing for Snowden’s arrest is, to a large extent, a consequence of anger with an NSA surveillance program that has attracted relatively less attention in the United States because it is mainly directed against foreigners. The so-called PRISM program came to light a few weeks ago in The Guardian, when it was revealed that the NSA was gathering large quantities of personal data on non-Americans from servers of American companies such as Google, Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, YouTube, AOL, and Apple.

Non-Americans are not covered by U.S. laws designed to protect privacy, even if they use the online services of American companies. And unlike the information gathered on Americans swept up in the data collection program directed at Verizon customers, PRISM did not focus merely on metadata – meaning  information about communications – it specifically obtained the content of emails, voice chats, videos, photographs, file transfers, and so on.

The American tech companies denied that they provided the U.S. government with access to their servers, but for many observers this was more wordplay than truth, an effort to avoid a public backlash that might have harmed the companies’ financial interests. It is generally believed that the companies do collaborate with American intelligence agencies, as the Verizon case showed, even if the precise nature of how they do so remains unclear.

Equally disturbing were revelations in The Guardian, based on other documents leaked by Snowden, that the United Kingdom’s GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, was scooping up large amounts of information by tapping into trans-Atlantic internet cables. This raised alarm bells even within the British intelligence services. One source involved in GCHQ operations told the newspaper: “We felt we were starting to overstep the mark with some of it. People from MI5 were complaining that [GCHQ was] going too far from a civil liberties perspective… We all had reservations about it, because we all thought: ‘If this was used against us, we wouldn't stand a chance.’”

GCHQ shared this information with the U.S. government, raising further questions about safeguards to protect Americans. Under American law a warrant is necessary to get data from Americans, but only if they are suspected of a specific crime. But it’s uncertain whether material passed on from a foreign intelligence agency, if it includes information on or from Americans, is subject to the same legal standards, let alone whether these standards were respected.

But all this is academic for the large number of non-Americans whose privacy was invaded by PRISM and the GCHQ program. They have no legal rights under American or British law, even if they mistakenly believed that their privacy would be respected by the companies through which they accessed online services. And this is what has irritated governments in Russia, China, Germany and Switzerland, who now know the United States is spying on their companies and citizens in ways that the Americans had rigorously concealed.

American officials and representatives have argued that PRISM is necessary to fight terrorism, and have defended the program as a success. You would expect them to say that, because it costs them nothing politically to justify a global spying enterprise against foreign nationals. But for foreigners the story is different. No less than Americans, they don’t care to see their private lives violated, especially those who may have some connection with the United States, or travel there, but are not protected by its laws.

Given the ease with which people having foreign names, especially Arabs, can be confused with one another, there is an understandable fear among many people, for instance, that they may become victims of mistaken identity in terrorist-related cases. Others may be vulnerable to blackmail, and don’t want American intelligence agencies using such information in an effort to recruit them.

There are an infinite number of other reasons why individuals may not want their records collected by a foreign power. Imagine had the Soviet Union implemented such a program against Americans during the Cold War, this would have sparked outrage in America.

It is all the more troubling for undermining the credibility of the internet, the most liberating of all inventions, designed to facilitate the free flow of information and often helping circumvent autocratic regimes for whom the privacy of citizens is a threat.

Now the internet has been turned around by a democratic country that has nevertheless amassed far more potential power over people’s lives than the worst dictatorship. Identifying Snowden as the villain is to miss the point. Rather, the NSA should quote from Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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