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Your privacy – Government’s business!
‘Your Privacy – Your Business’ is what all of us thought prevailed in a free society where the governments upheld your right to be left alone.

ALLOWING ‘SLEEPING DOGS to sleep’ was the hallmark of capitalism. But events during the last week of June shook the foundations of such belief, when it came to light that there is nothing private about anything you do via any communication device.

I am reminded of a scenario that was built ten years ago in a publication of the American Civil Liberties Union. The scene was presented to drive home the point that government snooping on privacy could be followed on by private enterprise using the same technologies that governments used. The scene presented was this: “A tourist walking through an unfamiliar city chances upon a sex shop. She stops to gaze at several curious items in the store’s window before moving along. Unbeknownst to her, the store has set up the newly available Customer Identification System, which detects a signal being emitted by a computer chip in her driver’s licence and records her identity and the date, time, and duration of her brief look inside the window. A week later, she gets a solicitation in the mail mentioning her visit and embarrassing her in front of her family.” Startling, isn’t it?


We all value our privacy...

I was met by a government official recently who was on a routine visit to ensure that my company complies with all the provisions of the law which his department was mandated to enforce. During the conversation, he made a curious comment. After listening to what we are doing as information security consultants, he asked if these security issues were not being hyped. He was adamant, to the point of being obstinate, in stating that the issues of cyber infractions are hyped by consultants like me and the press was happy to tag on for sensationalism.

I tried hard to tell him the ground reality, but failed. I then tried to scare him by informing him of the risk that the data about his wife and daughter could get into wrong hands and the consequences thereof. At that instant, the colour on his face changed. When I added that it was likely that our conversation could be recorded and played on an internet site, he raised to leave with encomiums for what I was doing. The fear of possible intrusion into his privacy did what my discourse on technology failed to do. Consciously or unconsciously, we all value our privacy and strongly believe that no one, including the government, has a right to violate it.

 

Code-named “Tempora”

Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor disclosed to The Guardian that the GCHQ has a project in place that trawls data flowing across multiple communication channels as part of their electronic surveillance, ostensibly to prevent terrorist strikes and criminal acts. What is shocking about this project (code-named Tempora) is the extensive and exhaustive collection of data and storage for a significant period of time. Going by what The Guardian had found following the disclosure by Snowden is that this gigantic electronic snooping handles 600 million ‘telephone events’ a day and extracts data from a quarter of the 200-plus fiber optic cables crossing the Atlantic, on a daily basis. The data trawled by Tempora comes from across the continent and comprise of citizens of many countries.

This surveillance effort threatens to snowball into a major confrontation. On the one hand, between the US and the UK who defend it, and on the other hand, among members of the European Union who suspect that the entire project is ultra vires the legal framework. Within the US, a bipartisan group of 26 senators wrote to James Clapper, Director of the US National Intelligence and expressed their concern stating, “by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this programme had the effect of misleading the public about how the law was being interpreted and implemented.”

 

EU Protests...

Germany has asserted that free and democratic societies cannot flourish when the governments shrouded their actions in a veil of secrecy. Luxembourg has asked London eleven questions concerning the GCHQ action that collects, stores, analyses and interprets large volumes of data passing through telephone and internet connections.

It reads, in part, as follows: “I have noted reports that the UK authorities are accessing, collecting and further processing, on a massive and indiscriminate scale, personal data in the form of communications passing through the UK. If reports are true these programmes could have a serious impact on the fundamental rights of individuals in the EU, including the right to privacy and data protection, the principle of proportionality and the rule of law generally.” In case, the European Commission is not satisfied with the British response to its concerns, it could move the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg to stop the British surveillance activity. The decision of the EU Court of Justice will depend substantially on whether or not Tempora violates any EU law.

British Foreign Secretary William Jefferson Hague, said that Britain should have nothing but pride in its indispensable intelligence-sharing relationship with the US. “Let us be clear about it: in both our countries intelligence work takes place within a strong legal framework. We operate under the rule of law and are accountable for it. In some countries secret intelligence work is used to control their people – in ours it only exists to protect their freedoms.” Conservative Leader David Davis dismisses this claim and says that the British Intelligence Agencies are subject to law only in theory. Markus Ferber, a member of the European Parliament, told the Reuters: “I thought this era had ended when the German Democratic Republic fell.” Konstantin von Notz, spokesman of the opposition Green Party, was more categorical: “what’s been going on here is against international law and must be stopped immediately.” A strong criticism came from a non-political leader; the co-inventor of the Internet, the platform that is so ubiquitous and also yielding to electronic espionage. Sir Tim Berners-Lee accused the powers that be of hypocrisy in the matter of digital espionage: “obviously, it can be easy for people in the West to say, ‘Oh, those nasty governments should not be allowed access to spy.’ But it’s clear that developed nations are seriously spying on the Internet.”

It is unfortunate that our privacy is no longer under our control. There are small groups that faintly blame technology for loss of privacy and say “Oh! before the internet, our privacy was well protected.” That faint view will fade but what may not fade is the governments wanting to deny more and more of our privacy – to us!

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