I’ve been following the story about the NSA PRISM scandal, not obsessively but with the interest that such a big international, important, story deserves. “What is PRISM?” JFGI, okay?
It’s not for me to judge whether the actions of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower, were legal or not; it’s up to the courts to decide. It’s also not for me to decide whether it was morally just; he believed that what he did was right. And when we look back on this episode of history, my hope is that history and the public will decide correctly. That said, I feel compelled to put down my thoughts as I am pulled in different directions on this issue.
right or wrong
Technically, what he did was wrong. It’s surely, at the very least, against the confidentiality agreements that he must have signed with his employer. And since he had access to information way up in the confidentiality stratosphere, he probably broke the law. However, breaking the rules is part and parcel of being a whistleblower; almost by definition, you have to do one to be the other.
He has said in his guardian interview, that he believed what he blew the whistle on was a matter of public interest. I was talking with mm about this, and she asked me what was my take. For me, I’m glad he did what he did. Yes, he broke the law, but the sort of revelations he made, it’s knowledge that I as a member of public want to know. Not that I was under any illusions that surveillance wasn’t happening, I wanted acknowledgement that it was.
The revelation is that the NSA has been collecting, on a massive scale, metadata on phone calls, internet activity and all sorts of stuff people do on a day to day basis. The surveillance is conducted on everyone, rather than just the people who are under suspicion. There are big players involved: verizon, google, facebook, to name a few. Rightly so, the EU is aghast, because if the NSA has been spying on EU citizens, it’s potentially against EU privacy laws. The EU has a different approach to privacy than the US, the main difference being the question of who owns personal data. The EU gives the right to the data subject whereas the US gives the right to those who have access to the data.
The rapid growth of CCTVs in the UK has brought concerns, although by and large, my feeling is that people have gotten used to it. Being recorded hundreds of times a day and watched by unnamed government employees (or worse, poorly trained TSA types) should worry us, but anecdotally, people around me take the pragmatic way: we’d tolerate having our privacy invaded if it leads to criminal convictions and it prevents crime. Whether or not criminals are actually deterred, and whether or not CCTV footage have helped solve crimes, that’s another debate.
The NSA surveillance is like CCTV, except in a much hugher scale. Their justification is that they’ll collect and store the information to help them with the fight against terrorism, amongst other things. But does it really help? What do they do with the data? Have they been able to stop criminals and terrorists?
not so angry
Perhaps John Scalzi summed it up nicely, why he didn’t have anything angry to say about the whole affair.
I have assumed the US government was getting my data one way or another. At the end of the day, the Internet was born out of ARPANET, and the US government has never been keen of letting the Internet go entirely private. Once more, I’m slightly surprised people seem surprised.
Why anyone is surprised that their online activity is being monitored is surprising. If you use the internet, you need to realise that what you do and put out there will be there forever for all to see. And that the email you send via gmail doesn’t belong to you. Google isn’t a charity, it’s not providing a free email service out of the kindness of its heart.
At work, the employee handbook specifically said that emails sent via the company’s email system belong to the company — they are open about it, and there are company policies that tell employees that yes, what you write in you emails, what you save on shared drives, everything you do on company time…the company owns it, has a right to inspect and as such, you have no privacy. There are no is and buts.
It’s also well accepted that countries like China and certain Middle Eastern countries heavily censor internet usage by its residents. They do it, and they don’t apologise for it. In a way, a country that doesn’t have a surveillance system is far too naïve in today’s political environment. If other countries are doing it, then we need to have solid defences.
a different sort of anger #1
There are 2 things I’m angry about. First, is how quickly the likes of google and yahoo fell over themselves to deny that data mining is taking place. Oh please. Be transparent about it. Acknowledge that, yes, the data is collected by the government. Make public what type of data it is. Tell the public what they do with it, how they store it, how they maintain its integrity, who has access to it and what are the checks and balances in place.
I hate companies who sell my personal information to telemarketers, because that’s abuse of my providing the information to them. I’m usually uncomfortable providing personal information to companies.
But surely there is a difference when it comes to government access? They have my passport number, they have access to my tax and medical information. It’s a matter of trust. I need to trust that the government respects my privacy and won’t abuse the huge amount of information it has on me. Make me glad that it’s the government, acting in my best interest, and not unscrupulous corporations that has my data. Hiding behind the laws and pretending PRISM doesn’t exist, that makes me angry. Please, treat the public with a bit more respect.
a different sort of anger #2
The second thing I’m angry about is more simple. If the government is collecting all this data in the name of crime and terrorism prevention, then why didn’t they stop the Boston bombers? Why didn’t they stop all the other atrocities that have occurred lately? Why are there so many drug dealers and rapists and murderers still at large? When we see some real results?
hong kong, china
Edward Snowden has escaped to, of all places, hong kong. I don’t particularly advertise it openly, but that’s where I’m right now. I’ve lived here on and off throughout my life, which makes me a tiny bit of an expert, especially amongst the few readers I have on this blog. So anyway, it was quite a surprise that he’s decided that HK is relatively safe for him. Unrelated, it’s a good opportunity for the rest of the world to learn about this place. Yes, technically it’s a part of China. No, we have different judiciary, financial and education systems. The judiciary progression of district court, high court, court of appeal and court of final appeal has its basis in the British system, not the mainland system. China isn’t supposed to interfere except on matters of defence and foreign policy.
Many commentators are opining on what China would do. Me, I wish China’d stay out of it, to show the world that HK really has the autonomy that it claims we do. The part in the Basic Law about China having a veto on extradition proceedings is for Chinese nationals only, not a American citizen like Mr Snowden. Whatever the US government does next, and whatever requests they make to the HK government, all need to follow the proper due process, away from interference by parties that have no business interferring.
I was surprised Mr Snowden praised the “strong tradition of free speech” in HK. That is true in a way. Lots of protests, just last week thousands of people attended a June 4th memorial event (China pretends nothing happened on June 4th 1989), and people can say and do whatever without fear of repercussions. Most people just regurgitate what they hear on tv, so I can’t attest to their intelligence level. I guess the point is, they are free to be as stupid as they like without repercussions.
The problem is, the tradition of free speech that Mr Snowden alluded to, has been eroded in the last few years. The CE is obviously pro-Chinese. The pro-China movement has grown stronger, and the unwelcome influx of Chinese immigrants and tourists has increased tension with locals. The judiciary system is still seen as above the fray and able to claim to be just and neutral. But it’s a matter of time before it’s tested.
And then onto China. Evil. Over the weekend mm and I were in Shenzhen, just over the border from HK. We were having lunch at the swanky Hyatt hotel. Attentive staff, good food, amazing views. But when I turned on my iphone to check facebook, I was greeted with the everspinning “loading” wheel. It wasn’t because of slow wifi connection. Belatedly I remembered, facebook and twitter and the like are all banned. One thing you can say about the Chinese government, they don’t hide or deny stuff like this. They are open about blocking facebook, they are open about tracking people’s internet usage. They don’t hide. And that, is what I think the US government needs to come to terms with.
Coverage of the story seems to have tapered off, even the Guardian has it underneath the headlines today. I hope that this has been an eye-opener for all. About the workings of secret government sections, about the need to be open up front versus asking for forgiveness when discovered. Will my phone or internet habits change? I doubt it. It is what it is.