National security vs privacy

National security vs privacy

Very few Internet users know what https stands for in Web addresses. For example, It is Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure...

Very few Internet users know what https stands for in Web addresses. For example, It is Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), a communication protocol for protected communication over a computer network. The sites that don't have the added security feature simply begin with http.

The popular perception of Net users is https sites are secure, tamper-proof and safeguard the users from cyber attacks since they use advanced bidirectional encryption technologies in transferring data between a client and a server. We believe, or we are made to believe, https sites provide a reasonable cyberspace through a secure channel of communication guarantee that what's transpiring between two sides cannot be read, recorded and eves-dropped in by a third party.

Though time and again we have been proved wrong that somebody is capable of poaching our passwords and transferring our money from bank accounts or stealing volumes of confidential information, rarely do we think that governments will do such things. The general thinking is it is the job of hackers and cyber crooks who gain access to our digital files and filch our valuable data using bugs and a variety of viruses that prey on unsuspecting and vulnerable Net users. Now, we have been told, at least in the US, openly, that the intelligence community can officially do it for national security's sake.

For nearly a week now, debate has been raging in the US � and to some extent in the UK and a little in this country � about the government's 'dirty work' in peeping into citizens' cyber activities. What is more worrisome for civil liberties activists there is whether the government is compromising an individual's privacy in its eagerness to collect as much data as possible to thwart possible terrorist attacks.

The issue at the centre of controversy is electronic surveillance under two different programs that allow the government to sweep up digital traffic that passes through Internet service providers, such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. The first one began under the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that had allowed the authorities to tap Americans' phones, record their conversations and analyze their contents. But under the Obama administration, the eves-dropping has gone a step further. Under the second program, the ever-increasing use of the Internet has been included. The Net Surveillance Program collects info from emails, chats, videos and photos uploaded onto various social sites and files transferred and received. In other words, everything once a key on the computer is pressed.

According to classified information leaked by Edward Snowden and published by Washington Post and British newspaper Guardian, the top secret electronic surveillance program called Prism (an unsuspecting acronym for Publishing Requirements for Industry Standard Metadata) has been collecting online information from American citizens and permanent residents for several years.

Once the secret is out, the Obama administration has candidly admitted that the surveillance programs do exist and they will continue to be snoop dogs for the National Security Agency (NSA). In fact, they have gone to the extent of saying that the surveillance is legal as it is authorized under law and there is nothing illegal about it. But the law, which Congress reauthorized in late 2012, is controversial in part because Americans' e-mails and phone calls can be swept into the database without a court order when they communicate with people overseas.

President Obama too has acknowledged its existence saying that he had hesitations when he inherited the program from his predecessor George W. Bush, but that he soon became convinced of its necessity. "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society," he said.

The choices were made long ago but they came to public knowledge only last week although people have been suspecting such surveillance does exist in one form or the other. But what nobody has suspected is its wide sweep and the way it is done by Uncle Sam 24X7. Interestingly, the Internet service providers are also privy to the surveillance. However, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, they have stressed that they won't allow government open access to servers but comply with requests for specific data.

"It cannot be used to intentionally target any US citizen, any other US person, or anyone located within the United States," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement, describing the law underlying the program. "Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," the New York Times quoted him as saying.

Despite assurances and reassurances from officials about the nature of surveillance programs and their 'usefulness' in non-repetition of 9X11, civil liberty champions are not convinced. They stress that these programs violate one of the most fundamental rights of Americans: Right to privacy and how far an individual is protected. We too, in this country, face a similar issue whenever the government proposes curbs on the Internet and social media. Though the reasons for which restrictions would be sought vary from time to time, the basic issue is how to define individual privacy in the digital world and where to draw a line (in the Indian context, Lakshman Rekha) between personal privacy and national security.

In an increasingly digitalized and globalized world, privacy has no meaning as far as national security is concerned. That's the view almost all countries are veering around to after having had bitter experiences with terrorists who have become Net-savvy to carry out their plans. But, at the same time, electronic surveillance should not become a tool in the hands of political establishments to witch-hunt opponents and adversaries. That can become real if there are no checks and balances and a free hand is given to authorities. Such a situation will defeat the purported aims of electronic surveillance and turn it into a nightmare.

You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society - Obama

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