In a democracy, the Internet is without censorship, but do we want it without police? What would it mean? No one would be interested in your emails to al-Qaida in Yemen or shopping for chemical cocktails on the Internet. The ongoing debate on Edward Snowden, PRISM and the recent decision of an American court to give its blessing to secret services to go through Americans’ telephone accounts is precisely about the potential of secret services to follow such indicators.
The revelation of the PRISM project did not lead to a loss of innocence of the information age, contrary to what computer science professor Jiří Zlatuška wrote on iHNED; after all, the snooping capacities of the National Security Agency have been debated for years. The NSA acquired this authority in 2008 thanks to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which has been sharply debated over twice in the U.S. The second time was in 2012, when the law was extended and NSA snooping went before the Supreme Court. Incidentally, photos of the enormous NSA complex in Utah, where it all takes place, have already been on the web for a year and a half.
Snowden, who released classified documents on PRISM to the media in June, has only underscored the fact that we live on the web. YouTube knows your favorite videos, Facebook knows your friends, your cell phone, and if you consent to it, knows where you live thanks to GPS. Yes, as long as anyone uses the Internet completely without barriers, Snowden could open his eyes.
PRISM and the Others
The Snowden documents confirmed clauses of FISA allowing the NSA to monitor Internet traffic, intercept emails and search inside them. It demonstrated, moreover, that supervision of these NSA powers is not without its problems.
The American right to privacy has its specifics. It’s possible to eavesdrop on telephone conversations only with court permission, because bugging a phone isn’t technically so simple, and people expect privacy when speaking into the receiver. The situation with mail is similar: You can’t open it without disturbing the envelope, and people understand the privacy of correspondence. However, this does not hold true for telephone accounts or envelopes—we don’t expect privacy there.
It’s more complicated for emails. You store emails on an outside server; with some exaggeration, it’s as if you were sending postcards. You can’t expect great privacy, and the law makes provisions for that fact. Therefore, the NSA is not so restricted when it comes to emails and can look into their contents, even at messages sent from the U.S. to other countries and vice versa. Everything takes place in real time and intercepted emails are further scrutinized. Obviously, the NSA is unable to poke back with an email.
Who’s Monitoring the Mailman?
Try to buy a grenade on the street in Egypt on vacation and send it home. Can the police check your mail? Today we are solving similar issues with email monitoring. Where are the problems with the Internet?
As the PRISM case demonstrates, the main problem is monitoring the monitors. There are mistakes and excessive surveillance, but America is decidedly not Stasi-era East Germany or contemporary China. Recently, for instance, the government declassified a number of documents showing part of the debate between secret services and the special FISA courts, which approve their work. The documents indicate that the courts are far from mere counterweights, actively correct the rules on NSA surveillance and do that under the watch of congressional oversight committees.
The consequence of the Snowden scandal will not just be stricter oversight of the NSA but also long debates among experts over how to make the Internet and cell phones “fit” the 18th century American constitution. Lay people will again be surprised that their emails are not entirely private. The result shouldn’t be the end of Internet snooping. That is one of the prices of security which we just can’t avoid.
The author is a lawyer and political scientist. He has studied law and international relations at Masaryk University [Brno, Czech Republic], Georgetown University and the University of Oslo. He has worked as a lawyer for the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic in Prague and is one of the founders of the Center for Human Rights and Democratization in Brno.