Monday, October 12, 2015

Prism and Privacy: What Could They Know About Me?

Among all the documents leaked by Edward Snowden are details about the Prism Program, which keeps surveillance information on citizens of the United States as well as citizens of the European Union.  This program allows the United States National Security Administration access to private online files via private Internet firms.  However, the United States Government is not the only governing body that has employed these, among other, practices to attempt to keep its citizens “safe” with the information collected.

The United Kingdom has used the data collected by the United States in addition to using their own information gathering methods. According to “Prism and Privacy: What Could They Know About Me?” by Tom de Castella and Kayte Ruth in BBC Magazine the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), the United Kingdom’s premiere electronic surveillance agency, collects a plethora of information on its citizens in a multitude of ways, all in the name of safety. The information is collected via IP addresses, searched terms, algorithmic analysis of emails, and the GPS locator in cell phones activated by phone calls, Wi-Fi and applications usage. Travel system swipe cards, shopping loyalty programs, street security cameras, credit reference agencies and voter registrations lists are also used by the GCHQ to track citizens movements outside the digital world and have proved useful for local law enforcement. Though there has been a call for much tighter regulations on what data is stored on street security camera, how long it is stored for and the usage of the footage.

The controversy in all this information gathering is the right to privacy that citizens feel their government is encroaching on, even if this right is only implicit in some governing documents.  Another argument against the mass collection of information is that the conclusions drawn for data gathered can be misinterpreted or misused resulting in the uprooting and traumatization of another’s life. This is arguably the situation in the Khaled El-Marsi’s and Binyam Mohamed cases. In both men’s cases, as well as arguably in others, data was gathered, possibly incorrect conclusions were drawn and two men were allegedly tortured because of these conclusions. Not only is torture illegal according to the Geneva Convention the whole process in which these men were extraordinarily rendered broke laws of due process and associated prisoner treatment policies.  Since information gathering of this type allows governments to keep tabs on its citizens and make decisions about them without their knowledge the intelligence compiled needs to be regulated and carefully reviewed before conclusions are drawn and action is taken that can drastically affect a person’s life.

Personally I believe that what governments have done in these situations is not particularly illegal, at least in the information-gathering phase outside of the extraordinary rendition process. However, their actions do walk the fine line between morally right and wrong in their invasion of data citizens feel is private or should be kept private, violate a citizen’s feelings of trust in their government and lead to more mistrust, all in the name of safety. All citizens may not explicitly have a right to privacy according to some governing documents yet they are still afforded the courtesies of international law, the Geneva Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights where applicable, though this range should be expanded. If citizens are treated like a faceless mass these courtesies of basic human rights become lost in the translation to keeping the collective safe. Our humanity must be remembered.

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