10 June 2013
On Friday, June 7th, the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed operation PRISM, a not-so-secret-anymore American government program which allows the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to access all the digital data collected by the world's largest tech companies. The gathered data ranges from mobile phone conversations to login names and passwords of websites an individual visits to the credit card details left on the website of an airliner.
The U.S. government states that this information is used for training employees of security agencies, however, a spokesman told Reuters that the information is a valuable source of data to prevent terrorism and catch the suspects early on. To accomplish this, digital information is monitored, regardless of whether a target has terrorist sympathies or history of making threats.
On Saturday, June 9th, former NSA infrastructure analyst Edward Snowden came out as the PRISM whistleblower. Snowden declared that the NSA had built infrastructure which allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human digital communications are automatically intercepted without targeting. He said he blew the whistle because he does not want to live in a world where everything he does and says is recorded. As he believes that the degree of surveillance would increase exponentially by generation, he felt that he had to make this known to the world before it was too late. Currently, Snowden is hiding in Hong Kong and hoping that the authorities will not extradite him to the U.S.
The international community has responded to this with outrage, as the U.S. Department of State suggested that the collected information is mostly from non-U.S. citizens, which can be collected as soon as the details pass through U.S.-based servers. Ministers in countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, Romania, and Belgium have called for an investigation at the EU level and MEPs have largely responded positively.
President Obama defended this policy by stating that the NSA is closely overseen by Congress and the courts and that his administration had struck "the right balance" between security and privacy. However, several congressmen refuted the President's statement, claiming that they thought they had passed a law which would allow monitoring of digital data of terrorist suspects, not ordinary citizens. Internet giants Apple, Google, and Facebook claimed not to be participating in operation PRISM and that they had only learned of the program on Friday. Whether this means that the material was not obtained is uncertain, because data collection can happen through browsers, software, and hardware as well.
All eyes are on the U.S. to see if Snowden will become the next Bradley Manning or if he will stay a free man in Hong Kong. The bottom-line remains that regardless of who knew what when and regardless of the consequences for Snowden, it is now clear that digital privacy is long gone.
By Linda Hoeberigs