Through the Spying Glass

ABC’s Four Corners broadcast a story largely focussing on the ways in which our online data is used by corporate bodies without people’s knowledge on Monday, September 9.

Many are familiar with the fact that corporations track our movements online to enhance the advertising that we receive. Web searches, URLs, times, dates and places of contact are all factored into how we are marketed to online. However, this debate over privacy and marketing is overshadowed by the largest and most pervasive online tracking: that which governments exact on their citizens. The existence of the US’ all-encompassing online surveillance system, PRISM, was recently leaked by ex-NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. In his testimony to The Guardian, Snowden explained exactly how comprehensive this system is. He showed that while online marketers use our metadata, the “who, when and where” of our online activity to sell us things, US intelligence agencies have access to the “what”. With PRISM, US intelligence has access to every facet of a person’s life online, including banking services, social networks, email and whatever personal curiosities one possess. Coupled with analysis of a user’s easily retrievable metadata, PRISM is a truly gargantuan surveillance tool. It has been argued that since PRISM is a program relegated to the domestic scene of the US, foreigners have little to fear of its power to invade privacy. However, the domestic nature of PRISM does not relegate PRISM investigation to US citizens, but only to traffic passing through US servers. This is an enormous amount of global traffic considering that the most popular online services, like Facebook and Google, are American enterprises. According to leaks provided to The Guardian, US authorities use a program called XKeyscore to navigate the communications that are hoovered up in the PRISM program. Slides obtained from the XKeyscore training program demonstrate the breadth of reach that XKeyscore has and the specific criteria that data can be sifted through including location, browser and keywords. Due to the gargantuan quantities of data passing through US servers on a daily basis, much of the information is retained for less than a week, but methods of data storage are quickly improving. This is where the situation becomes relevant to Australians. Our broad strategic co-operation and alliance with the US includes us belonging to the Five Eyes. This international intelligence community includes the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The alliance serves to co-ordinate global intelligence, prevent duplication and aid in cross-checking vital information. One concern here is that in the context of programs like PRISM, this relationship can be used to side-step laws protecting a citizen’s privacy. For example, outside of exceptional circumstances where permission is given to conduct serious surveillance on a person of interest, governments cannot spy on their citizens without a firm reason. The law prevents it. However, if a person is of interest in one country, let’s say Australia, but cannot be legally surveilled by Australian intelligence, their online movements can easily be tracked by one of the Five Eyes partners, most likely the US, and this information shared back to Australian intelligence agencies. According to a report in The Age in June this year there is such a flood of data coming to Australian intelligence agencies from the US that a new data storage facility is being constructed outside Canberra to expand our own capacity to store and analyse all this material. The very large majority of this information is useless to intelligence services around the world. Peoples’ proclivities and interest in amusing cat videos on YouTube have no application to hunting terrorists. This system is justified in the same way that CCTV is. No-one cares if you’re picking your nose while you walk past the gaze of a CCTV camera, but if you carry out a crime, or witness one, you might be of interest to the relevant authorities. To justify PRISM Barack Obama has said, “We have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms” and it is hard to disagree with such benevolent rhetoric. Terrorist activity is still a threat today, and even though the relative damage in an attack would likely be minimal in the scheme of things, the harm of these attacks on economies and national consciousness cannot be understated. According to member states, PRISM and Five Eyes co-operation has resulted in the prevention of numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. However, even though this system is currently an enormous power in benevolent hands, how can we be assured that it will always be so? History proves to us that even the most upstanding nations are vulnerable to corruption and the intent of nefarious individuals. Richard Nixon’s tapping of phones in the Democratic National Committee spring to mind, as do recent charges of corruption against Eddie Obeid in NSW. If a system like PRISM existed during a period of such ideological warfare that gave rise to McCarthyism, what would the result have been? What if, in the presence of such a repressive climate as we see today in Russia where laws banning “homosexual propaganda” are enacted, a system like PRISM existed, and what would become of those whose ideas ran counter to the interests of the state? We may like to think that our societies are immune to such cruelty and corruption, but fear of subversion or destabilisation drives people and governments to extraordinary lengths. What happens when the greatest threat to our society is no longer a terrorist attack? As Alistair MacGibbon from the Centre for Internet Safety noted on Four Corners: “For the vast majority of us, this has no implication whatsoever. If you’re doing something either that might be of interest , or might be construed of being of interest to those intelligence agencies, then that might have significant implications for you.” These systems are presently used to counter the threat of terrorism and break smuggling rings. They are successful, so there is likely no turning back from these developments in data surveillance, as the commercial and security benefits are far too large for any government or corporation to abandon. Indeed, it is more probable that they will grow and become more pervasive as time goes on. Nevertheless, those that wield these powers must remain vigilant in the magnanimity they project, and the public must be at the very least involved in some kind of discussion as to how such powers are executed.

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