Where to draw the line on government surveillance

Big Brother is watching. But, of course, you already knew that

You’re being watched. But, of course, you already knew that.

Camera surveillance has become an accepted—almost expected—backdrop to modern life. We willingly give permission to Google and Facebook to make billions trading on our personal preferences and interests. And it’s been common knowledge for decades that Canada participates with the United States and other English-speaking countries in monitoring global communications. Given all this, how can anyone be properly shocked by news the U.S. government is collating massive amounts of information gleaned from online sources or cellphone logs?

Nevertheless, despite the banality of our modern lack of privacy, it’s important to consider what is and is not acceptable in the world of Big Data. There are still a few bastions of confidentiality worth fighting for.

Last week, the Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers published evidence from Edward Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Administration (NSA) contractor, explaining the existence of a hitherto-unknown electronic surveillance project called Prism, which allows government agents access to the servers of some of the world’s largest online firms, including Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Skype and Microsoft. Additional revelations uncovered the scrutiny of U.S. cellular phone records by the NSA, as well.

The apparent purpose of Prism and other surveillance projects is to profile and track terror suspects worldwide. And while the process sound ominous, it’s no more ominous than earlier efforts.

For decades the Americans, along with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have been intercepting global satellite communications through a system popularly known as Echelon, or the Five Eyes. Echelon has been the subject of several books and lengthy media reports, as well as an investigation by the European Union in 2001 into whether the information was being used for commercial purposes. When considered beside Echelon, Prism looks to be a difference of degree (and name-brand recognition), rather than kind.

And keep in mind that collecting and collating data about customers is a core competency of Google, Facebook et al. If we’re prepared to allow these firms to use information about who we are and what we do online to sell on-screen ads, it seems entirely overwrought to worry about governments using the same information to fight terrorism. Plus, the bulk of the recent revelations involve the use of “metadata”—vast pools of information on numbers called, duration of calls and websites visited— used to discern patterns of behaviour. Actual intercepts of communications involving U.S. citizens still requires a warrant.

Finally, the widespread public approval for the use of camera footage in tracking down the Boston Marathon bombers (not to mention the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup rioters) surely signals the broader fact that digital surveillance has become a permanent and accepted component of modern society, particularly where major crimes are concerned.

This erosion of public and online privacy in the interest of enhanced security obviously reflects a trade-off at work. U.S. President Barack Obama was not being disingenuous when he said, in response to news of the Prism revelations: “You can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience.” For the most part, people seem to accept this fact.

Yet this doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon entirely the concept of personal privacy or the notion that some aspects of life ought to be off-limits to government intrusion. So where does the line lie?

Clearly, there needs to be judicial oversight of governments’ domestic spying power to ensure it is tightly focused on national security. Such protections exist in the enabling legislation in the U.S., Canada and Britain; following these recent revelations, government officials reassured their citizens that the procedures were still being followed. But without regular scrutiny—including leaked information of the sort Snowden provided— we will never really know if this is the case.

Which brings up the most troubling issue regarding recent secret government investigations: the Obama administration’s hand- ling of whistle-blowers and the media. Following several high-profile leaks involving information about North Korea and al-Qaeda, the U.S. government has reacted by secretly, and in unprecedented fashion, seizing the phone and Internet records of reporters for the sole purpose of identifying the source behind the information.

Rather than violating personal privacy to keep the public safe, this shows a government using its extraordinary anti-terrorism powers to protect itself from political embarrassment. A line has clearly been crossed. It’s worth noting that the Obama White House has prosecuted more government officials for the release of secret information than all previous administrations combined.

Governments have been granted the ability to watch over us by a largely approving public because we’ve been convinced these powers are necessary and useful in keeping us safe. But these powers are not unlimited, and are not intended to allow governments themselves to avoid scrutiny. With this in mind, a free and unencumbered press is the best guarantee that the proper balance between security and privacy can be maintained.