Inside the glass house

<B>The Sunday Story</B> Sweeping surveillance of the Internet by the U.S. under the PRISM programme sends out a clear message: online privacy is a myth.

June 16, 2013 02:12 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:38 pm IST

The Internet should help people keep tabs on their government, but as the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM programme revelations and the WikiLeaks episodes make clear, it is governments that have acquired sweeping capabilities to snoop on citizens. This is not the way the Internet was supposed to be, when it began as a revolutionary, democratising network.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s decision to go public with specific parts of the global spying operation carried out by the United States using some of the best-known services such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook and Apple has turned attention once again on the iron grip of governments on the Internet. There have been others who have blown the whistle in the past on clandestine government surveillance. Some like Aaron Swartz prised open vaults of research kept locked away for commerce. But Mr. Snowden’s PowerPoint presentation has sent a chill across the world. Ironically, the plight of the user today is no different from the early days of Internet services. That era was best summarised by Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, in January, 1999 when he said about Net use, “you have zero privacy anyway, get over it.”

That loss of privacy was mostly voluntary, and hastened by the need to identify individuals who wanted to conduct online transactions, or access information and services provided by particular websites. The layer of security placed on the internet creates encryption and also identifies people. Users willingly surrender their anonymity and the content of their transactions when entering the software architecture of a service-provider, say Google, and are in no position to understand or modify it.

In his turn-of-the-century book, The Internet Galaxy , sociologist Manuel Castells makes the point that with the advent of surveillance, modern life has become a glass house, and people learn to internalise censorship because they know public expression on the Net might have negative consequences. The citizen thus comes to have a double persona, the real one offline, and an image of oneself online.

The PRISM revelations, which have been confirmed and defended by the U.S. government, raise a disturbing question for all non-Americans: just how much sovereignty did their governments cede because of an operation that they most likely were not even aware of? International norms of intelligence-gathering require sharing of information, but in the case of PRISM, even U.S. citizens have been shocked at the secret and shadowy functioning of the National Security Agency in their own case.

American senators have demanded to know whether the Patriot Act, a post- 9/11 security legislation, was lawfully used in collecting the phone records of U.S. citizens en masse, and with doubtful oversight.

Lawmakers of the European Union, whose privacy law was reportedly watered down to facilitate American snooping using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, are under pressure from citizens to review data protection and even refuse closer commercial ties with the U.S. until a satisfactory answer is forthcoming.

America’s global spying programme is also worrying the corporate world in several countries over the issue of commercial secrecy, since the information kept in cloud servers — located mostly within the U.S. — is open to surveillance. Efforts of the Internet companies covered by the PRISM to reveal the extent of official data access requests have been denied so far by U.S. authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), adding to the murky situation.

More distressingly, for the tens of thousands of people participating in pro-democracy uprisings and social movements around the world, such as the Arab Spring, and mobilising support through the internet, it is now clear that they essentially live in a cyber panopticon, their every move scrutinised in a massive complex in Ft. Meade, for a ‘friend or foe’ test. It is not difficult to imagine the consequences of adopting causes that the U.S. does not approve of, especially in undemocratic countries. The illusion of privacy no longer exists.

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