Government Surveillance and Monitoring of Individuals

Nowadays, when it comes to privacy, government surveillance is a one of the most talked about topics.

In my view, what truly opened the gates to monitoring of individuals like we’ve never seen before, was the introduction of the Patriot Act after the events on September 11, 2001. This was very controversial at the time. “Civil rights advocates argue that the PATRIOT Act is a threat to the rights and liberties of all American citizens, as well as non-citizens in the United States. Under the Act, law enforcers have the authority to carry out searches without warrants. Abusive law enforcers could conduct searches and seizures in the homes of people not necessarily linked to terrorism. Because of such provisions of the PATRIOT Act, there is high likelihood of abuse and violations of civil rights.” (Collins, 2015)

The Patriot Act allowed the US government to introduce a brand new kind of surveillance programs. One of the first NSA programs of this nature was a clandestine project called ‘Prism,’ initialized by the US government in 2007. The details of  Prism were leaked by Edward Snowden (former employee of CIA), who claimed that many of the tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL and also Apple “were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key.” (Miller, 2014). In 2013, BBC summarized the Prism project by saying, it allows the NSA “to receive emails, video clips, photos, voice and video calls, social networking details, logins and other data held by US Internet firms (Kelion, 2013).

As per E. Snowden, the Prism wasn’t the only spying program initiated by US government. His leaked report points to many others, such as Wiretaping, that allowed monitoring of telephones. This project came to end in 2007 due to immense pressures from the public.

Another program started by the US government was named ‘The Upstream’. According to renowned surveillance journalist James Bamford, “The “Upstream” interception of domestic cables carry “about 80 percent” of the world’s telecommunications — allows the government to conduct pattern analysis on a huge trove of metadata, and to eavesdrop on foreign-to-foreign communications that travel over U.S. networks.” (Kaufman et al., 2012)

A good example that the trend keeps on going is a report made by the Wired magazine in 2012, saying that the National Security Agency (NSA) started building the heavily fortified Utah Data Center. This project was actually finished in 2014 at a cost of almost $2 billion dollars. These are the projects of unprecedented size (a yearly electricity bill is over $45 million for this facility). While the good outcome of the project like Utah Data Center is that it will push the computing field forward and possibly also protect us from the terrorist threats, the dark side of such immense projects is as The Wall Street Journal reports: ” The Utah Data Center is a symbol of the spy agency’s surveillance prowess,” (Utah data center, 2016) or us Wired magazine puts it, “its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. ” (Bamford, 2012)

As we can see, there is an apparent need to protect the public from numerous threats that are out there, but in my view, these projects should be done transparently, not in secrecy and be always approved by a vote of elected officials on behalf of general public. Only then I believe, our society will be able to trust its governments. I don’t necessarily believe, that the details of the technology behind the monitoring should be made public, not at all, but public needs to be aware of any program that could breach our basic human right, the right to privacy.

I wholeheartedly agree with David W. Mitchell, who in his 2016 paper Privacy and Government Surveillance said something that truly resonates with me. I quote: “The mass collection of sensitive information has been challenged by many as an invasion of privacy. Snowden’s release of sensitive information has brought to light the true challenges between government surveillance and privacy. There is a true need to balance government surveillance and privacy in order to protect America. Lawmakers are starting to recognize this with the introduction of new laws to tackle and balance privacy with government surveillance. These improved laws must be introduced on a national level.” (Mitchell, 2016)

References

Mitchell, D.W. (2016) Privacy and government surveillance. Available at: http://www.infosecwriters.com/Papers/DMitchell_PrivacyGovernmentSurveillance.pdf (Accessed: 15 August 2016).

Collins, G. (2015) The USA PATRIOT act and its impact on America – Panmore institute. Available at: http://panmore.com/usa-patriot-act-impact-on-america (Accessed: 15 August 2016).

Kelion, L. (2013) Q&A: NSA’s Prism internet surveillance scheme. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-23051248 (Accessed: 15 August 2016).

Miller, C.C. (2014) Tech companies concede to surveillance program. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/technology/tech-companies-bristling-concede-to-government-surveillance-efforts.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=global-home (Accessed: 15 August 2016).

Kaufman, B.M., Attorney, S., Center, A. and Democracy (2012) A guide to what we now know about the NSA’s dragnet searches of your communications. Available at: https://www.aclu.org/blog/guide-what-we-now-know-about-nsas-dragnet-searches-your-communications (Accessed: 15 August 2016).

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