Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Edward Snowden - What does this mean for privacy and security in the information age?

Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, 2013 being interviewed by the Guardian press

A popular quotation has been thrown around in light of the recent leaked communications methodology provided by Edward Snowden - "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety". Attributed by one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin, what do we define as essential liberty and is safety and security a non-fixed entity, anyway? The two concepts rely on whether liberty is negative or positive, freedom from external restraint and freedom from internal restraint respectfully.  We can define Benjamin Franklin as a classical liberal and with that, a definition of liberty under the countenance of negative freedom. So, then, how does one guarantee an individual is free from barriers that obscure their human security without taking away liberty temporarily in order to achieve societal security and order?

Edward Snowden has revitalized this debate by illustrating to the public the capability of the intelligence apparatus in intercepting domestic and foreign citizens communications and "private" information. The word "private" must be defined here as there is a growing misconception as to what "private" really means. In political theory, privacy as we know it derived from "private property" whereby pieces of land belonging to certain individuals would be able to manage, exclude others and to exclude also from the control of society. From what we understand as privacy today, "private property" has transcended from being a physical entity and delved into "material" and "intellectual property" that has a defined owner and/or author. The cause for concern is the further blurring lines between what is "public" and what is "private" given the rise in cyberspace  and public communications.

Capability and actuality

PRISM is an electronic surveillance apparatus which is used by the National Security Agency to harbour information on individuals with relatively little time and effort by intercepting communications and other sources of intelligence on the internet. These include and are not limited to, the accessing of user-accounts on social networking sites, conversational logs between participants (domestic or foreign), file transfers and stored data. There is a distinction to be drawn between capability and actuality. The primary reason such a system takes little time and effort is mainly due to the consent provided by the domineering companies on the internet. These include (from the PRISM collection details slide) - Microsoft (Hotmail, etc.), Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple. Thus, the capability to harbour such vast amounts of traffic primarily derive from the providers who maintain the servers and infrastructure to harvest such quantities of information. As for actuality, the comparisons to an Orwellian society are prevalent amongst many social circles concerned with their privacy who see the government analysing data in real-time and gathering data at will. However, PRISM doesn't have the capability by itself to store all this information. The budget for PRISM is reported to be $20m. To put that into context, Facebook servers alone to maintain such quantities of data are $80 per server per month; Facebook has a total 30,000. Therefore, per year, servers cost $28m and that does not include engineers and salaried workers or the other sources of information.

Absolute privacy is absolutely unattainable 

The source of information is primarily from the private companies who "own" user-generated data on the multitude of different areas of cyberspace. The majority of internet users participate in social networking activities which are dominated by the aforementioned providers of these services. Essentially, by using these services you hang your rights to privacy and confidentiality at the door by ticking the box of agreement to the overwhelming, gigantic terms and conditions. Facebook, for example, has a snippet in their "full data use policy" which asserts "Information we receive about you... may be accessed, processed and retained for an extended period of time when it is the subject of a legal request or obligation, governmental investigation  or investigations...or otherwise to prevent harm." These clauses aren't unique and transcend into various service providers. In a sense, absolute privacy is absolutely unattainable. So what does this illustrate? For one, it illustrates that users have the short-end of the deal when it comes to protection of their privacy and that the intelligence services, with probable cause and reason can intercept communications at will. This is the crux of Snowden's message to the public but the public have missed the point.

Members of the general public feel betrayed to be vindicated as potential perpetrators to undermine national security. Others feel this maybe the beginning of a working reality of despotism fiction whereby the ruling authorities seek to dilute liberty gradually and inevitably. One thing that remains certain is that it illustrates the complexities and ambiguity facing strategic foresight of the intelligence services. The role of the intelligence services is to maximize understanding and human climate so that it may maximize their ability to identify breaches to human and national security. With this, the capability to do such a task is reacting to the telecommunications world we live in today. Whilst the activities are questionable, it isn't illegal purely because users have consented for their information to be harvested. Mass-data surveillance isn't in itself dangerous, what is dangerous is lack of accountability. Contrary to popular belief, comparatively the West is transparent   in its disclosure of strategic and intelligence realities that bare the very question of legitimate action. There is one thing to commend Snowden for and that is the act of bringing this to public attention and discourse. However, that had to be done through the paradigm of sensationalism through an overt leak; the apex of public interest into bringing to attention what users have, to many people's surprise, consented to for decades. Returning to the original quote, whilst I have great admiration for Benjamin Franklin, there has been no society in its existence which hasn't, for one reason or another, had to bear the brunt of sacrificing personal liberty to maintain security. What is the purpose of having liberties if you are not free from the very continuous threat brought by a lack of security and therefore impossibility to enjoy liberty in the first place?

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