Why Australians should be concerned about NSA's PRISM

A lot has been said about the recently exposed US internet surveillance programs from the perspective of Americans, but non-US citizens have a lot more to worry about, and a lot more at stake. With our government keeping mum about their involvement, Rupert Parry explores how PRISM will affect you.

A few weeks ago we learnt, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that potentially all of our data stored on Google, Microsoft and Apple servers (among others) is being accessed by the United States government through the US National Security Agency's PRISM program. Though the details are still somewhat murky, it means that the US government can pull data about you without a specific warrant from any of a list of major US-based companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

PRISM, though, is only the tip of the iceberg. The US has had the ability to engage in untargeted, blanket data collection for some time now. A recent report by Associated Press confirms that, shortly after September 11, President Bush secretly authorised the NSA to tap directly into the major internet cables which house all web traffic flowing to and from the United States:

Tapping into those cables allows the NSA access to monitor emails, telephone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions and more. It takes powerful computers to decrypt, store and analyze all this information, but the information is all there, zipping by at the speed of light. (AP)

Backing this up, in 2006 an AT&T technician named Mark Klein leaked that the internet giant had allowed the NSA to install a computer at its switching centre in San Francisco, a major hub for fibre optic cables. So though the specifics are still being held tightly under wraps, we have good reason to assume that the NSA has been given a free licence to collect whatever foreign data they wish, without any clear legal framework from holding them back. Furthermore, there is no limit on how long they can keep this information, to assist in any future investigation they might have.

Protection for US Citizens, but not for us

The loudest voices of outrage over this whole debacle have come from inside the US. Americans are upset that they can now be essentially searched, digitally, without any legal due course. Previously, the monitoring of any transmissions between US citizens would require the involvement of the FBI and a search warrant, but the secret "Protect America Act" implemented in 2007 changed this, meaning data of US citizens can be stored, and their phones tapped, with nothing but a broad explanation of vague targets to a secret court in Washington needed to authorise them.

Though this is certainly a worrying development for the yanks, it is not the Americans who should be concerned, but rather us. For Australians, and other non-US residents, there is no legal protection governing the collection of our data by the NSA. While this may not be problematic at first sight, consider the amount of web traffic which flows through American internet cables every day. This includes all of your personal files held on cloud storage websites, any emails you make to a US email address, and any made from a server held in the US (for example, Gmail, iCloud mail, Hotmail), and any Skype conversations as well as Facebook messages you might have. Almost every transmission you make on the internet probably winds up in the US at one point or another, which means that there is reason to believe that your files have found their way into NSA's headquarters.

You may get targeted as a side effect

So there is a strong likelihood that the United States has intercepted your transmissions, pulling them out from internet cables without your permission or knowledge. Though this is somewhat shocking, especially if you believe the privacy policy of websites you sign up to, it represents broad data collection in which you are an unwitting passenger but not a target. However, with the broad scope afforded to the NSA in their targeting of suspects (they don't have to narrow their investigation to specific individuals like they would with a warrant, and rulings are made in a secret court unseen by the public), there really is no guarantee that your entire life won't come under the close scrutiny of the PRISM program. In fact, mere association with a suspect in their investigation puts you in the spotlight. Here's what the Associated Press had to say:

Prism, as its name suggests, helps narrow and focus the stream. If eavesdroppers spot a suspicious email among the torrent of data pouring into the United States, analysts can use information from Internet companies to pinpoint the user.

With Prism, the government gets a user's entire email inbox. Every email, including contacts with American citizens, becomes government property.

Once the NSA has an inbox, it can search its huge archives for information about everyone with whom the target communicated. All those people can be investigated, too.

So, if for some reason you've been sent an email by a suspect under investigation by the NSA for whatever reason, it is likely that your entire digital life has been downloaded and is being scoured over by nosey federal agents without your knowledge or consent. The Australian government will not protect you from this.

It sets a new benchmark for secrecy in governments

While Australians should be concerned about how such data collection affects us directly, we should also spare a thought about what it means in regards to the way governments with huge influence over our lives are treating secrecy in general. In March, James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, was being questioned at a congressional hearing when he was asked whether the NSA was collecting "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans". His reply? "No," and then "not wittingly." Clapper has since apologised after the Prism program was leaked, and then comically defended himself by saying he responded in the "least untruthful" manner. In Clapper's defence, he was unable to discuss Prism because it was classified, but that shouldn't be much comfort for us; it proves that what US government agencies tell the public is only a fraction of the truth, and what they don't want to disclose is easily covered over by a classification.

While the Australian government does have laws in place restricting who can be investigated, so did the United States, but those laws have since been secretly circumnavigated. Our government has not disclosed whether or not they have any similar system for monitoring Australian citizens, but given the revelations from overseas, it would be foolish to assume otherwise. Further, there is an intelligence sharing agreement between Australia, the US, New Zealand, Canada and the UK, meaning that any information gathered by the US under situations which would be considered illegal under Australian law may be obtained by the Australian government after being intercepted without legal constraints overseas.

One step closer to a bad future

If we cannot trust what we're being told about Prism (which isn't much anyway), how can we trust that there are adequate checks in place to prevent it from being used for purposes which undermine the democratic ideal of freedom? Constant monitoring of a population without restriction risks infringing rights to freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and the targeting of individuals and groups. It would be easy to imagine protests being dissipated before they could even begin, and the unethical use of private facts to prosecute those out of favour with the state. Furthermore, we're talking about an unprecedented level of knowledge which is in the hands of a foreign government, one which we can't elect, and one with which we have no say.

Surveillance can be very beneficial. It can prevent crimes from taking place, thereby saving innocent people form being wronged or killed, perhaps through the discovery of a planned terrorist attack. After the fact of a crime, surveillance can be used in court to make sure that the perpetrator is convicted. However, for the good to outweigh the bad in this kind of situation, there needs to be government transparency and clear, effective (and difficult to disregard) laws governing who can be monitored and why. All of this is missing from the NSA's secretive, overreaching intelligence initiatives, and instead everyone's data is being collected and stored, whether they're a suspect or not.

Even if it might not be apparent now, a step towards the erosion of a right to privacy takes us a step further to a future where all of our data can be used against us. Though no doubt prosecutions will be limited to terrorism related crime today, with a government which doesn't disclose its motives, and overseas surveillance which is beyond our control, there is nothing to stop our personal data being used more liberally. And what's the excuse for all this? That such extreme measures protect us from terrorists, a claim which remains unfounded.

I'll leave you with a thought provoking quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera:

One day in 1970 or 1971, with the intent to discredit Prochazka, the police began to broadcast these conversations [with Professor Vaclav Cerny, with whom he liked to drink and talk] as a radio serial. For the police it was an audacious, unprecedented act. And, surprisingly: it nearly succeeded; instantly Prochazka was discredited: because in private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he'd never admit in public, and so forth. Of course, we all act like Prochazka, in private we bad-mouth our friends and use coarse language; that we act different in private than in public is everyone's most conspicuous experience ... Thus only gradually did people realize (though their rage was all the greater) that the real scandal was not Prochazka's daring talk but the rape of his life; they realized (as if by electric shock) that private and public are two essentially different worlds and that respect for that difference is the indispensable condition, the sine qua non, for a man to live free; that the curtain separating these two worlds is not to be tampered with, and that curtain-rippers are criminals. And because the curtain-rippers were serving a hated regime, they were unanimously held to be particularly contemptible criminals.

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