Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 13th 2013 Contents International governments, tech com-
panies and privacy advocates were in
a furor following the disclosure that
the US government is able to access
detailed records of individual smart-
phone and internet activity, via a wide
reaching, top-secret surveillance scheme
known as Prism.
Revelations that the National Security
Agency (NSA), through Prism, is secretly col-
lecting communications records and tracking
Internet usage, including e-mails, documents,
photos and other material for agents to review,
has sparked a heated debate over the right to
individual privacy versus America s right to
protect itself and its interests from harm.
Prism into personal data
US director of national intelligence, James
Clapper, acknowledged the existence of Prism,
but insisted it was only used under court
supervision. US technology companies are
legally required to share information under
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
According to Clapper, "The United States
government does not unilaterally obtain infor-
mation from the servers of US electronic com-
munication service providers. All such infor-
mation is obtained with FISA court approval
and with the knowledge of the provider based
upon a written directive from the attorney
general and the director of national intelli-
Since news of Prism s existence broke, Pres-
ident Barack Obama has staunchly defended
US government programmes conducting sur-
veillance of Americans phone and Internet
activity. He argues that surveillance activities
were conducted with broad safeguards to pro-
tect against abuse.
President Obama has spoken of his own
"healthy skepticism" about the surveillance
programmes when he first came into office.
But things have changed since then. Obama
now believes that "modest encroachments on
privacy" are warranted.
"They make a difference in our capacity to
anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activ-
ity," he said, adding tellingly, "The government s
Internet monitoring programme does not apply
to US citizens or residents."
It is this last statement that should be most
concerning to governments and individual
Internet users around the world. The United
States is unambiguous about its intentions.
The US government s Internet monitoring
programme applies to non-US citizens; and,
in order to protect its own democracy, it is
prepared to violate the democratic rights of
In this light, countries the world over should
be assessing the nature of their technological
dependence on the US and on US-based com-
panies. Non-US Governments and businesses
should also be critically evaluating the nature
of their investment in locally-based Internet
infrastructure and support for indigenous tech-
US public private partnership
According to a report in the Washington
Post, Prism was created after extensive nego-
tiations between US tech companies and US
Federal authorities, "who had pressed for easier
access to data they were entitled to under pre-
vious orders granted by the secret Fisa court."
But the Washington Post report claims that
the secret court orders, made under section
702 of Fisa, served as "one-time blanket
approvals for data acquisition and surveillance
on selected foreign targets for periods of as
long as a year."
US technology companies has been loud in
their denial of complicity with the Prism pro-
gramme as further details emerge of their co-
operation with US spy agencies. Google, Face-
book and Apple have all issued strongly-worded
statements denying that they knowingly par-
ticipated in Prism.
However, the New York Times said, some
major tech companies, discussed setting up
secure online "rooms" where requested infor-
mation could be sent and accessed by the
NSA. Such systems allow them to dispute the
idea of direct access.
According to the New York Times report,
the companies named in the Prism documents
had co-operated to some degree with the US
authorities. Twitter was a notable exception
to the list and has reportedly declined to co-
operate. Amazon, which offers back office
services to a huge number of web companies,
is also missing.
In Internet technology we trust
Whatever the case, for the hundreds of mil-
lions of Internet users the world over who
depend on email, social networks, file storage,
and other Internet-based services run by US-
based companies, Prism serves as a powerful
reminder of how much the global Internet
remains dependent on trust in the US ability
to police itself, its government and its insti-
The visionaries and idealists who built the
Internet hoped it would be a universal tool of
sharing of knowledge. Today, a shadier vision
seems to be emerging. Governments, not just
in the US, are using the reach and richness of
information about our routine online human
interactions, for monitoring and tracking in
the interest of public safety.
The truth is, we live in a very different world
from the one in which the Internet was con-
ceived. Technological advances have played a
significant role in shaping both the promise
and the perils of our modern reality. The com-
plex, global, interconnected nature of life
cannot be ignored. And the subjectivity of
arguments about the balance of the right to
privacy against the right to public safety and
security will never be easily resolved.
In a USA Today piece, John Nockleby, direc-
tor of the Civil Justice Programme at Loyola
Law School Los Angeles, posed the issue well,
stating "The overarching issue of our time is
to what degree do we want to allow the gov-
ernment to amass this kind of human inter-
connectivity in order to forestall the possibility
of mass terrorist events."
"There are going to be people swept up
merely because the computer algorithms say
they should be a target," he said. "So much
of this rests on a blind faith that the govern-
ment is comprised of good guys."
Such faith, however, is neither founded in
current reality, nor in the lessons of history.
But such faith may be all there is to work with
as we continue to build the Internet-enabled,
knowledge-based societies of the future.
Bevil Wooding is the chief knowledge
officer of Congress WBN (www.congress-
wbn.org), a values-based international non-
profit. He is also executive director of Bright-
Path Foundation, an education-technology
Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on
facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via
e-mail at technologymatters@brightpath-
JUNE 2013 • WEEK TWO www.guardian.co.tt BUSINESS GUARDIAN
COMMENTARY | BG27
Security, surveillance and
the right to privacy
Revelations of Prism, a top secret US government data collection programme
rekindles debate on privacy, security and control of the Internet
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