We demand security yet crave freedom. Can there be a balance in such an unstable and interconnected world?
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose in the US following the National Security Agency revelations President Obama indicated that ‘we don’t have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security. That’s a false choice. That doesn’t mean that there are not tradeoffs’. But what are the tradeoffs? Must the scales tip towards us feeling more secure but less free or vice versa? How does President Obama propose to ensure our privacy is protected as well as our safety amidst the global flows of data sharing and increasing levels of online surveillance?
Current debates that have emerged out of the revelations by Edward Snowden appear in the context of a steady move over past years towards increased surveillance by the State in the US post 9/11, where the Patriot Act was brought about during a time when America was feeling at its most nationally insecure. The National Security Agency’s surveillance activities have been thrust into the global public domain and despite the defeat of the Congressional measure put forward by Representative Justin Amash on 24 July, the political and legal struggles over the US intelligence apparatus are only just beginning. The vote was tight and members of congress, civil liberty groups as well as former surveillance officials are keen to re-set the imbalance between liberty and security they see currently permeating US policy. When the vote was actually cast the majority of Democrats voted in favour of the amendment and Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee told the Guardian that this demonstrated the ‘stage was now set’ to ‘reign in the NSA’.
However, the apparent imbalance between secrecy and transparency infiltrating the intelligence services appears as more of a global rather than specifically American problem. French newspaper Le Monde revealed that France runs a vast electronic surveillance operation which involves intercepting and stocking data from its citizen’s phones as well as their internet activity, using very similar methods to the US NSA Prism programme. No wonder that Francoise Hollande initially provided a series of very weak objections when the NSA story went to press. In addition to this the UK has proceeded with blocking the first crucial talks on intelligence and espionage between European officials and their American counterparts, restricting the talks to data privacy issues and the NSA Prism programme. This could well be an attempt by the UK Government to shield their own intelligence services from the scrutiny of global public opinion that they see their US counterparts currently battling.
Global public opinion is also casting a rather unfavourable eye on hardware and software providers as well as internet service providers as information published in the Guardian revealed that US technology firms worked closely with the National Security Agency. New information technologies are shrinking the parameters of personal security as we are communicatively and socially dependent on companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and numerous others if we are to live a fulfilled life in the digital world. The NSA obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook and Apple and collected material including search history, email content, file transfers and live chats. In the case of Outlook.com Microsoft worked directly with the NSA to help it get around the data scrambling scheme that would have concealed messages from the agency. It seems that Microsoft’s current advertising campaign slogan; ‘your privacy is our priority’ is misleading and we as technologically dependant citizens are becoming increasingly technologically vulnerable.
For whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden the ultimate sacrifice for their revelations and calls for increased global Governmental transparency has been their own personal liberty. The irony is also that both have lodged applications for asylum in Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa has operated with anything but transparency in restricting press freedoms and the powers of private media groups. Wikileaks claims it is helping Snowden secure asylum in ‘a democratic nation via a safe route’, but the democratic nature of both Ecuador and Venezuela is questionable considering the human rights records each country holds. Snowden’s initial choice of refuge was Hong Kong, a city under the rule of China who hosts one of the most repressive Internet systems in the world and is under scrutiny for its own cyber operations abroad. Both Assange and Snowden are now stateless citizens trapped in a spatial no man’s land between countries in manoeuvring themselves to avoid US prosecution. Both are most probably eager to avoid a similar fate to that of Bradley Manning and would prefer incarceration in locations of their choosing as opposed to allowing the US Government and judiciary to decide this for them. In the case of Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, cries of malpractice have been heard before and it is also perhaps a publicly acknowledged reality that Governments in this digital day and age hack into other countries cyber infrastructure to gather intelligence.
Overall it all comes down to how secure and how free we want to be. Bill Clinton recently warned Americans to ‘be on guard for abuses’ of power and does support the use of the NSA to intercept communications by foreign terrorists but indicated that accountability and transparency in its use was essential. Clinton adds that ‘freedom and security are not incompatible; they’re mutually reinforcing’, so looking for a solution that removes the need for a choice between these apparent opposites is the challenge for our world leaders.
Emma Rees is studying a Masters in Politics & Communications at the LSE