This briefing paper is going to discuss about personal privacy in the 21st century, the digital age. The purpose of this document is to inform the people about how the technology they are using is being used as a tool to monitor their every move and how they are completely under the control of the government. The report aims to:
- Explain why the government is surveilling its people
- Analyze how the government has been watching its people
- Address the legal aspect of these operations
- What can be done to protect people’s privacy?
Six years ago, on June 6, 2013; after evading capture and extradited to the United States,Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, leaked sensitive intelligence documents that indicates the United States Government, apart from gathering intelligence all over the world for potential foreign terror threats against America, were also conducting espionage operations and data gathering on their own backyard, on its own citizens (History.com editors 2018).
It maybe willingly or forcefully, from large players in the digital world to phone companies and Internet Service Providers; they all work with the governments as part of a large-scale surveillance program called PRISM (Sottek, T & Kopfstein, J 2013). It was later revealed that embassies buildings and global leaders were targets of the espionage program which generated international tensions. The main target of these programs: American citizens had also raised their concerns through protests across the nation and even though any acts of reducing, overhauls or decommissioning those programs are unlikely because the government justify that it is a matter of national security to maintain these operations, at least the people are now more aware of what their leaders are doing, to be able to discuss it and possibly even redefining the red line.
3. How the government has been watching you?
Global surveillance has been existing ever since the invention of the telephone, radio and later the Internet which allows the communication to be intercepted and captured by a third-party organization.
In the West, the “UKUSA Agreement” treaty was signed in 1947, between America and Great Britain, later joined by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The agreement is about creating a joint intelligence gathering effort and surveillance network across the globe (Campbell, D 2000). Following that, the ECHELON surveillance system was created to monitor international communications, mostly the communist states in the Cold War. And later on, the War on Terror, along with the expansion of technology and the Internet, bring your own devices and social media, the government’s effort to expand their surveillance operations are growing larger than ever. Not only ECHELON was not decommissioned, similar projects are developed. For example, PRISM was created to track all communications globally and put a halt to any probable terror activities by gathering user data based on the following information (Rollins, J & Liu, E 2013):
- Mobile phones: phone records including the participants, phone numbers, time and call length
- Social media: chat logs, video call, online activities
- Emails, photos and documents stored online
- Internet browsing history
The data mining is said to be approved by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) and notified to Members of Congress before it can be proceeded. As mentioned above, the tech companies play a huge role in this by providing the agencies direct access to their servers and databases to collect and analyze data. After five years, the information must be destroyed.
4. Is the government mass surveillance scheme lawful?
In response to the outrage of the people worldwide, the NSA justified that all data collected are authorized by the court and Congress, all used to monitor any conversations that is deemed relevant to any potential terrorist attacks. Specifically, after the September 11 attacks, the NSA realized that the national security was at stake. Therefore, the US PATRIOT Act was announced not long after, which allows government agencies to have certain powers over certain areas.
Particularly, under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, government agencies can obtain a court order confidently to collect tangible things in order to serve any investigations involving terrorism or foreign espionage operations (Electronic Privacy Information Center 2005). Therefore, they were authorized to collect phone records, emails and browsing histories from business providers. As per the global espionage, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows the targeting of non-US citizens outside American territory, again, to prevent possible terrorism activities and maintain national security. (National Security Agency 2014)
Nevertheless, there are arguments stating that the surveillance programs have violated the 4th amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”. Non-warrant cases are only allowed when there is an exception. Currently, the metadata collection by the NSA was conducted without any warrants from the court under both the PATRIOT Act and FISA, but rather under “special needs” exception. NSA usually pins into the statement saying the need of a warrant would lose them the time factor in collecting information that can put national security at stake. This is acceptable when the target has been colluding with known terrorists or had involved in sabotages in the past. However, millions of law-abiding citizens were part of the surveillance programs for years and since no crimes were involved, a warrant is to be required, which the NSA did not enquire. (Liu, E, Nolan, A & Thompson II, R 2015)
5. What can the people do?
As mentioned above, the majority of the people were furious when they knew that they were being watched at all times and there were some people agree that it was necessary. For those that are concerned, there are certain things they can do to help keeping government surveillance at bay:
5.1 Throw away the digital devices
This can be accomplished by stop using mobile devices, deleting all social media accounts, deleting all email accounts and cloud services. And finally, not using the Internet.
- The government cannot keep tabs on you electronically if there is nothing to keep an eye on.
- That individual will have to return to old-fashioned ways of doing things, such as: writing letters, keeping notes and data in a book, going to the library to look for information etc. It will take a lot of time and effort to do what technology can do in a few minutes. Therefore, users are sacrificing convenience for privacy.
5.2 Force the government to decommission the surveillance programs
The people can show their discontent through mass protests, civil strikes or through their votes in the elections. After all, the government are created by the people and for the people.
- The people’s privacy will be secured
- Avoid personal information from falling into the wrong hands due to power abuse
- Communications regarding plotting a terror attack can go by unmonitored, resulting casualties and the infliction of fear amongst the people. Officials have stated that due to the surveillance, they have been able to pick up chatter and communications to stop over 50 potential terrorist attacks, saving lives, discovering terrorist cells and arrest them. (Cayford, M & Pieters, W 2018)
Despite the global outrage, Snowden’s leaks hardly changed US laws and the Acts are still very much in play. This is due to a fact that the people rely on the government, especially the intelligence community to provide safety and in order to do that, they will have to collect information at any cost. The people do not like being watched and some have changed the way they use technology and what information to keep online; however, it appears that such programs beyond their control and they have to make a choice between freedom and security (Geiger, A 2018). Since the fear of terrorism is far more than the fear of privacy breach, government surveillance will not go away anytime soon.
7. Recommended Actions
As mentioned above, to completely stop the spying programs, the best way would be to not use technology at all. Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to do that as all services are reliant on technology these days, not using it would be extremely inconvenient and in the future, old-school service will not be available anymore so there is no choice but to catch up with technology. That does not mean there is no hope, here are a few things a citizen can do to maximize virtual privacy:
- User encryption services: there are securely encrypted messaging applications and browsers that can hide communication and data between users. The hosting companies does not have the data for the government to collect nor they will be able to hack the encryption to get that information. (Paul, K 2017)
- Cover up the camera: there are reports stating that the NSA and CIA can hack into the camera of every device to watch its users. A patch or duct tape can prevent this. (Paul, K 2017)
- Keep social media activities to a minimal: users should avoid posting too much information that can be used to establish that user’s behavior patterns, leading to other people snooping around. (Paul, K 2017)
- Secure digital devices: almost every device is bugged by the Agency, therefore only purchase a device when it is absolutely crucial, the fewer the less chance of being watched. In addition, turn off the voice feature and location services on the phone. Finally, setup a self-destruct feature in case the phone is stolen to avoid data integrity being compromised.
- Use VPN to connect to the Internet: VPN is a secure connection service that can hide the device’s IP address and encrypt all data transmission through a secure tunnel. This way, even if someone manages to intercept the data, they cannot break the encryption. (Hoffman, C 2019)