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A Question of Privacy


The access of the digital information by the government for the purpose of security is not a new or isolated phenomenon. As pointed-out in my previous article on “Who controls the Internet?” it’s evident that the government has significant effect on the way that the network-of-networks is shaped. In that sense the government already has a control on the data to some extent. Direct access to the data is of course debatable based on many factors, including the results of such access.

Google, in its motion on September 5th, 2013 has made it clear that it is rather foolish to think that the information put online by the user is not accessed at all and kept completely private.

Personal Information online is a concept that may lead to contradicting connotations. If Personal Information is put online, then the owner of the information is no more the individual but it lies with the owner of the servers where the site is hosted and where this information is stored. So, it may no more be called as Personal Information but may be Server Information as that is what identifies the server and becomes its attributes, e.g. a Facebook server is called so, as it has the information of the users of Facebook. Hence, once the information is out of the hands of an individual, it is at the discretion of the company that owns the data to use it as it wills. Google, in its motion on September 5th, 2013 has made it clear that it is rather foolish to think that the information put online by the user is not accessed at all and kept completely private. Google scans all the emails to gather information on an individual’s online activity. For example, if one is sending mail about pizza party, googling about pizza varieties and also searching on Youtube for videos about making pizzas then it is not at all a surprise that based on location information the person gets advertisement about Pizza retails outlet, or Pizza product selling shops. What should Google do if the individual is doing the same with the keyword of “Bombs” or “Guns”?

Image Source: www.unitedliberty.org

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) spells out the circumstances under which the government can eavesdrop for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence.  Before Sep 11th, 2011, Bush administration’s Justice Department approved a program that may have relied on similar technology, but was far narrower in scope. Post Sep 11th the USA PATRIOT Act was passed under Bush’s Administration, primarily to include terrorism on behalf of groups that are not specifically backed by a foreign government. Further the Protect America Act of 2007 removed the warrant requirement for governmental surveillance of foreign intelligence targets. These developments point out to two things; that the surveillance activity has been present from a time longer than what we might know and that the monitoring activity is born out of the requirement of battling terrorism using all the available data. The best way to analyze the achievement of this goal is to look at the success of the whole program. It is hard to determine this for mainly two reasons. A direct co-relation between something that did not happen or maybe was prevented from happening to the act of collecting public information can only be established if it is attributed as such by either the ones who prevented the event or those who handle the data. Such information directly in the public domain can put the further success of such a program at risk as it is the discretion of the program that lead to its success in the first place as argued further.

Image Source: www.thechurchofnopeople.com

When the British government decided to build its own Big Brother Database, there was a public debate. There was such high criticism that the plan had to be dropped for good (the British government does still have its counterpart of PRISM). United States, on the other hand had the bill passed under different circumstances when the whole nation was and still continues to live in the state of perpetual fear which is evident in the surveys conducted on the citizens of America. In answer to the question of whether “people should support their country even if the country is in the wrong,” more Americans said “Yes” than citizens of eight European countries and when asked whether “right or wrong should be a matter of personal conscience,” Americans came in next-to-last. Above results were found in 2003 by the International Social Survey Program. Further a debate of sorts on NSA’s data-collection efforts was discouraged quoting the reason: “If you tell our adversaries and enemies in the counter terrorism fight exactly how we conduct business, they are not going to do business the same ever again,”[SIC] by Mike Rogers, The Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

There are several checks put by the government for gathering data. A special court is designed to review the applications for surveillance, which is composed of 11 U.S. District Court judges selected by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The downside is that this court has been recently giving permissions for the collections of millions of records and hence Verizon order sweeps up detailed information about millions of Americans in a single order. Another argument put forth against privacy infringement is that NSA collects only metadata of the call with the idea that when a person dials a number or sends an email, like the postal address which is visible to all, the dialed number or the “To” email is addressed is public and visible to all. Hence there is not harm in collecting metadata and collecting the actual data will be requiring a separate individual warrant. The counter; let us assume that a newspaper correspondent publishes a controversial article citing Internal Sources. Using the metadata of as to whom the correspondent was talking to over the phone, as to whom she has been communicating over email, it can be very easily pin-pointed as to who the Internal Source is, which again would lead to the invasion of privacy.

Incidental data collection is also quoted where the purpose is to actually collect the relevant information but in the process of reaching that information one has to collect all the available data and then sift through the data to gather the required information. Certainly the call and online activity of every Verizon customer or those using email etc… cannot be relevant to such investigations. It can instead be argued that the agency is collecting massive amounts of information, regardless of whether that information is relevant to national security. These concerns find more strength when we hear of news such as the confession, after multiple denials of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of Snooping on MIT professor, Noam Chomsky. Bilateral relations with other nations will also have to be looked into, as the Act extends on the American soil and so to the Servers that lie on American soil. Other countries like Australia are debating on whether to keep their Server Information on American soil. If a company is using the cloud service of an American company with servers hosted in America, then the data of that company is potentially liable for the scrutiny. The only way to overcome this problem is to build similar alternatives inside the borders of a nation, be it for email or cloud or online shopping.

The NSA can retain the data for up to 5 years and make use of “inadvertently acquired” domestic communications if they contain usable intelligence, information on criminal activity, threat of harm to people or property, are encrypted, or are believed to contain any information relevant to cyber security and the data that could potentially contain anyone’s details. What this means is that if the data is encrypted then US government can track, scrutinize and keep it for analysis and to decipher it; if the data is not encrypted then anyone can see it. Anything that goes over https is encrypted, be it our email or Facebook data which makes it eligible for collection, and if unencrypted, any Tom-Dick-Harry can see what is being transferred over the network. Sounds more like a chicken-egg problem.

What this means is that if the data is encrypted then US government can track, scrutinize and keep it for analysis and to decipher it; if the data is not encrypted then anyone can see it.

Is all the data really solving the problem or complicating it further is a question that needs deeper analysis. As of October 2012, nearly five million people held government security clearances to access classified information out of which, 1.4 million held top-secret clearances. More than a third of those with top-secret clearances are contractors. Booz Allen Hamilton is the strategy and technology consulting firm where Edward Snowden has worked which employs almost 25,000 people, 76% of whom have government clearances allowing them to handle sensitive national security information. This is necessary as analysis of such huge amount of data will definitely require massive algorithms, computing facilities and workforce but then that gives access to such sensitive information to a large set of people leading to a different security concern.

Image Source: blogs.uww.edu
Image Source: blogs.uww.edu

So, should we be concerned at all or not is up to everyone to decide collectively? The argument of “I am not a terrorist and so I have nothing to hide” holds no ground. Benjamin Franklin warned of the siren’s call for power by government officials when he observed that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Moreover on reflection, among others, the main concern seems to be about power, yes literally power. Where would they get all the electricity to keep-alive such a large Data center which is being built by contractors with top-secret clearances at Bluffdale that sits in a bowl-shaped valley, in the shadow of Utah’s Wasatch Range to the east and the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. Combined with it is the requirement of the computational and algorithmic power? Would this eventually turn out to be a failed project just like the previous Trailblazer Project? Only time will decide.


Shayana Kadidal (June 7, 2013), Obama Administration Continues Bush’s Unconstitutional Policies, http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/should-americans-be-worried-about-the-national-security-agencys-data-collection/obama-administration-continues-bushs-unconstitutional-policies.

Jonathan Turley (June 7, 2013), The Founding Fathers Rejected a System of Authoritarian Power, http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/should-americans-be-worried-about-the-national-security-agencys-data-collection/the-founding-fathers-rejected-a-system-of-authoritarian-power.

Alberto Gonzales (June 7, 2013), The Government Must Use All Available Technology to Protect Americans, http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/should-americans-be-worried-about-the-national-security-agencys-data-collection/alberto-gonzales-the-government-must-use-all-available-technology-to-protect-americans.

John Yoo (June 7, 2013), Government Data Collection Doesn’t Violate the Constitution, http://www.usnews.com/debate-club/should-americans-be-worried-about-the-national-security-agencys-data-collection/john-yoo-government-data-collection-doesnt-violate-the-constitution.

Washington Wire (August 9, 2013), NSA Data Debate: Glossary and Who’s Who, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/08/09/nsa-data-debate-glossary-and-whos-who/.

Tom Gara (June 10, 2013), Booz Allen’s Top-Secret Workforce, http://blogs.wsj.com/corporate-intelligence/2013/06/10/booz-allens-top-secret-workforce/.

Glenn Greenwald and James Ball (June 20, 2013), The top secret rules that allow NSA to use US data without a warrant, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/20/fisa-court-nsa-without-warrant.

Eyal Press (August 5, 2013), Whistleblower, Leaker, Traitor, Spy, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/aug/05/whistleblower-leaker-traitor-spy/.

M.S. on Democracy in America (Jun 11, 2013), Should the government know less than Google?, http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2013/06/surveillance-0.

Kevin Drum (June 10, 2013), Why the NSA Surveillance Program Isn’t Like “The Wire”, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/06/nsa-debate-we-should-focus-future-not-present.

Mike Masnick (June 18, 2013), Senator Lindsey Graham Defends NSA Surveillance By Arguing About Something Entirely Different, http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130617/01573323504/senator-lindsey-graham-defends-nsa-surveillance-arguing-about-something-entirely-different.shtml.

Andy Greenberg (June 20, 2013), Leaked NSA Doc Says It Can Collect And Keep Your Encrypted Data As Long As It Takes To Crack It, http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/06/20/leaked-nsa-doc-says-it-can-collect-and-keep-your-encrypted-data-as-long-as-it-takes-to-crack-it/.

Adam Bender (June 12, 2013), PRISM revives data sovereignty arguments in Australia, http://www.computerworld.com.au/article/464445/prism_revives_data_sovereignty_arguments_australia/.

James Bamford (November 5, 2009), Who’s in Big Brother’s Database?, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/nov/05/whos-in-big-brothers-database/.

Brad Bannon (June 6, 2013), The Epitome of Executive Overreach, http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/brad-bannon/2013/06/06/government-overreaches-with-verizon-phone-record-collecting.

Newzfirst (22 August, 2013), NSA collected thousands of Americans’ emails, http://newzfirst.com/web/guest/full-story/-/asset_publisher/Qd8l/content/nsa-collected-thousands-of-americans-emails.

Wikipedia References:

  1. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_Intelligence_Surveillance_Act
  2. Patriot Act, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USA_PATRIOT_Act
  3. Protect America Act of 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protect_America_Act_of_2007
  4. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FISA_Amendments_Act_of_2008
  5. National Security Agency, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Security_Agency
  6. PRISM (surveillance program), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PRISM_%28surveillance_program%29
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  1. A brief introduction of the controversial PRISM program should have been added after the second para to give a background of the further discussion and arguments.

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