Pick up your phone and make a phone call…who’s listening? Text a friend…who’s reading your text? Post a picture on Instagram…who can view your pictures (beyond those of which you allow to “follow” you)? Post something on FaceBook…who can read your post? Is “Big Brother” watching? Should he be watching?
It is an old well-worn phrase when it comes to the state and surveillance that if you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide then there is nothing to worry about. Shortly after the PRISM scandal broke government officials stated, “if you are a law abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life you have nothing to fear, nothing to fear about the government or intelligence agencies listening to the contents of your phone calls or anything like that.” In other words the intelligence agencies were doing good work “to stop your identity being stolen, and to stop a terrorist blowing you up tomorrow. But if you are a would-be terrorist, or the center of a criminal network, or a foreign intelligence agency trying to spy, you should be worried because that is what we work on”.
William Hague was responding to suggestions that GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters – the UKs equivalent of the NSA) might be obtaining information on British citizens through a US program called PRISM. PRISM is a NSA Program which works with the giants of Silicon Valley to extract everything from email to VoIP, photos to video conferencing. This is done from “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” i.e. pretty much anyone who is anyone in the US internet business. Chillingly the Edward Snowdon who leaked the information about PRISM says “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type”.
Only a day before there was another leak about US surveillance activities, this one about cell phones. The leak was a copy of a court order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordering the handing over of “all call detail records or "telephony metadata" created by Verizon… including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g., originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call”. Such information might seem harmless but can reveal surprising amounts, and from a privacy perspective it is completely indiscriminate as it covers everyone on the network. This is a far cry from obtaining a court order to get information about a few phones that are known to be used by terrorists.
Major opponents to this “collection of innocent data” ask the question, “Who is moderating the people moderating all of us? What is to prevent these people in these government agencies from using the information they obtain against the citizens of their country?”
Those that support the programs argue that some surveillance is necessary. It is a key part in preventing terrorist attacks from occurring so the question has always been about a balance between security and privacy. Before the leaking of the details of surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ most people in democracies either thought the balance was about right or more should be done to ensure security. In the United States today 47% say that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties, up 15% since October 2010, against only 35% believing that the security policies have not gone far enough to protect the country.
Blog Topic Question: Is this whole “spying” issue really an “issue” or are people just making something out of nothing? Is it absolutely necessary, in today’s world, for us to be expected to give up personal liberties in order to be safe? Thirdly, can we really trust governments to not abuse the information of which they are collecting?