Juggling national security and privacy: Through the US’ PRISM

Ever since the whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden unravelled the US’ contentious snooping programme, the hyper-active netizen community has been kept awake with worry. It’s amazing how the United States’ image has transitioned from being a ‘model of human rights’ to ‘an eavesdropper on personal privacy.’ Till date, the world has not stopped asking the US for justification. In the Fourth Strategic Dialogue held in India, co-chaired by U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, who reviewed several important issues ranging from the status of civil nuclear ties to trade to education, the surveillance issue also cropped up during the discussions.
After US President Barack Obama, it was John Kerry’s turn to defend the US’ National Security Agency in New Delhi. Kerry asserted that the PRISM programme was greatly misunderstood and stressed that it did not undermine the civil rights of people of any country. “PRISM does not look into individual emails, listen to phone calls or look at contents. Programme is a random survey of anybody’s phone, of just a number, not even a name. No name associated with it.”
According to Kerry, it was a random survey by computer that looked at random numbers and looked at whether those random numbers were linked to terrorists. Once a connection was drawn, the information was submitted to the court for permission to go further with the investigation
Kerry also pointed out that “all three branches of the American Government – executive, judiciary and legislator — were aware and part of this programme…” In doing so the evidence has shown that it has avoided many terrorist acts and saved lives, he underlined.
“Regrettably, we live in a world that is more dangerous because there are some people who prefer to kill people randomly rather than to enter a political system and offer a program and try to make a change.”
Is this the US’s subtle apology to the world for what many see as a brazen violation of privacy? Or, is Washington showing off its muscle by attempting to control the whole situation, rather than apologising, as China’s influential daily Global Times says.
The US is now trying to clear all this mess by tracking Snowden. Snowden betrayed his employer and is charged by the US government with an act of civil disobedience. Kerry has dubbed Snowden a traitor, and warned both Russia and China that their relations with the US might be damaged by their refusal to extradite him, where Snowden is currently thought to be hiding.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, sent a letter to Russia’s ambassador, Sergei I. Kislyak, warning of a break if Moscow did not send Mr. Snowden back to the United States. “The Snowden case is an important test of the ‘reset’ in relations between our two countries,” wrote Graham.
But, many in China, hardly a paragon of internet freedom, have a different take. Snowden is seen in China, as the Global Times’ commentary says, as a “young idealist who has exposed the sinister scandals of the US government.”
However, catching Snowden and terming him a villain or a hero will not solve any problem. The surveillance will continue to work as it would.

The argument of necessity and national security seems to be winning, for now.

“In the conflict between national security or national interest on the one hand, and privacy on the other, national interest will have superseding impact… It is possible to give hundred percent security and privacy in an ideal, utopic world. But it is hard to give people full privacy in this time,” India’s cybercrime specialist Pavan Duggal told India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org).

Duggal, however, pointed out disturbing ramifications of such an approach. “So, the US government may be defending, and may indicate that it is not important for political purpose today. But this issue will definitely be important tomorrow. Countries will have a dual approach later. One, when they are accessing others’ data in their country according to their privacy laws and regulations and the other being when the data of their own citizen by other governments will also be accessed. And this will bring curious challenge into making geography history in juridical issues.”