Be careful what you click, Google or Facebook, because Big Brother really is watching you. First, came a Guardian expose that revealed how a US telecommunications company, Verizon, was ordered to hand over data about phone calls made by US customers to the National Security Agency (NSA) on a “daily, ongoing basis”. The court order that forced Verizon to do so was secret, at least until the Guardian broke the story. While the actual contents of the call were not required to be handed over, the phone numbers and locations of both callers were made available, as was the duration of the calls. Now, the Washington Post has a scoop that reveals that the NSA and the FBI have directly tapped into the servers of nine US internet companies, including YouTube, Google, Facebook, Skype, and others. This programme, codenamed PRISM, is not an anomaly or an aberration. It is, in fact, the logical culmination of a process that began following 9/11, a process that has granted sweeping powers to the US government and intelligence services.
It began with the Patriot Act, which allowed intelligence agencies to begin collecting information on US citizens, something that had been banned since 1975. Then followed other Acts and court rulings that removed whatever barriers remained hindering such intelligence services from spying on US citizens. All the Acts sailed through Congress, with amendments proposed to keep some check on these sweeping powers removed by a political class all too eager to appear tough on terrorism. Therefore, what the NSA did is not illegal, and, in fact, the US Congress played a critical role in making sure that the government could, in effect, operate in complete secrecy and with little or no oversight. When given a choice between liberty and security, Congress chose the latter, on behalf of the American people.
Here, then, is the crux of the matter. It is a truism that states, once they have developed a certain capability, will almost certainly use it and will be loath to give it up. Regardless of whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans in power, the US government has increasingly moved towards both the militarisation of domestic security services and law enforcement agencies, coupled with the wilful erosion of safeguards meant to protect the individual freedoms Americans hold so dear. Proponents of this approach say that only those guilty of wrongdoing have anything to fear and that these measures are in place to ensure security, but there is never a guarantee, once such a capability is established and used, that it will always be used for the purpose for which it was originally intended. It should serve as a warning for the American people that even Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the author of the Patriot Act, called the NSA’s snooping “excessive” and “un-American”.
Now that the cat is out of the proverbial bag, US President Barack Obama has swung into damage control mode and clarified that the internet surveillance is “legal” and “limited”. The first part is correct, but his claim that the internet surveillance is limited only to foreigners is somewhat hard to believe, especially since any such system, once developed, can easily be directed against any target. For those of us living outside the US, the concern should be that, in the future, a simple internet search could potentially be used to build a damning case. Given the manner in which the US has pursued terror suspects — imprisoning some on very flimsy evidence — this should set off alarm bells. As for those in the US and particularly for the ones who leaked this information to the press, the fate of Bradley Manning should serve as a sign of what will happen to them once they are traced. And given the recent revelations, tracing the whistleblowers will only be a matter of time, not a matter of capability.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 10th, 2013.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ