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National Security @ the cost of Privacy
It’s been on since 2007. But it was revealed by a whistleblower only in June 2013.

America’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been operating an electronic surveillance programme, codenamed PRISM, since 2007. But the existence of the programme was leaked to the world only in June 2013. The whistleblower: Edward Joseph Snowden, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who worked as a contractor for NSA.


Everything I do and say is recorded:

Snowden told The Guardian: “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things. I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”  Snowden shared classified material to substantiate his claims and flew to Hong Kong, where he has sought asylum. He has also reported that NSA has been hacking into computers in China and Hong Kong, which he promises to substantiate if need be.

Snowden’s material shows several technology companies such as Microsoft and Apple participating  and that 98 per cent of PRISM production is based on Microsoft, Google and Yahoo. But the companies have denied any knowledge of PRISM. The question is: did a company like Microsoft not have the expertise to identify unauthorised access to its servers for 7 long years? Incredible.

The US authorities have claimed that PRISM was required in national interest to combat terrorism and that this power is used only on foreigners.

“Section 702 is a provision of FISA that is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States. It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.”

The involvement of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google...

It is reasonable to infer that the PRISM programme was carried out with the knowledge of these companies and now that they have been caught, they wish to deny their involvement to protect their image. Remember the NSA programme was carried under Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the companies providing information are legally immune to any proceedings against them?              

A question which lingers in our minds is: yes, the agencies have the right to information and the service providers are bound to provide the same but does it warrant direct access to their servers?

The next question: is do non-Americans’ users of these websites have any say in this regard?  The answer: “not at all.”  This is the price we have to pay for availing the US company services.

A few years back, in 2010, there was a rift between Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian Blackberry service provider in India, and the Indian Government on the latter’s accessibility to former’s encrypted data services. While our government felt the need for access to email and data services in the interest of India’s security, RIM was reluctant to share it. A compromise was agreed upon in putting a server in India for intercepting the email communications and in March 2013, our government tested this facility and plans to take possession of it.

Contrast the two scenarios.

In the case of Gmail, Yahoo mail, etc, our data is accessed by US authorities without any noise, since the service providers belong to US and servers were maintained outside India. In the case of Blackberry, our data was not available to us since the service provider is not an Indian and the server was maintained outside India. This reveals our dependence on outside agencies. As a fallout, various bodies like India’s Internet Service Providers Association are suggesting that these American websites have to set up a server in India, thereby protecting the data from the US authorities.

The Indian Government, in April 2013, rolled out the Central Monitoring System (CMS) to safeguard our privacy from mobile operators and protect India’s national security. Details of CMS are awaited. Presumably it allows the government to snoop on phone calls. Some are already up in arms against roll out of CMS  intruding into their privacy. But did they have the courage to stand up against PRISM?

Let us keep our eyes wide open, for all the revelations from the stable of Edward Snowden. Also let us wait and watch, on what our Supreme Court has to say on the public interest litigation (PIL) filed on our behalf by Professor S N Singh.

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