Human Rights Refracted

The debate rages on.  In a world where millions of people with Facebook and other social media accounts are happy to reveal intimate details of their lives, loves and their silly (perhaps bordering on stupid) behaviour – some of which is illegal – the furore over the US Government’s Prism program, focused on the collection of actionable intelligence data continues to polarise opinion.  With human rights activists, notably Amnesty International making statements such as:

“What he has disclosed is patently in the public interest and as a whistleblower his actions were justified. He has exposed unlawful sweeping surveillance programmes that unquestionably interfere with an individual’s right to privacy”

Amnesty International don’t say which public’s interest, claiming only that Snowden’s human rights are being ignored – his passport having been withdrawn by the USA – the arguments on both  sides show the tricky balancing act demanded of (mainly Western) governments by their people.

The USA has the right to withdraw a passport from anyone it so chooses and Snowden broke a trust and the terms of his employment contract in doing what he did.  He clearly knew the consequences of his actions and took actions to protect himself from those consequences.  He is not an innocent party in all of this.  The Prism program was put into place to provide usable intelligence that could be used to protect the USA and its allies and it was formulated by a legally-elected government with significant layers of bureaucracy in what is one of the most open democracies in the world.  This type of activity has been happening for years and we don’t seem all that worse-off as a result.  Perhaps some of us are still alive as a consequence.  The annoying thing is we’ll never know – not because it’s ‘top secret’ but because it’s inherently impossible to say.

The intelligence services don’t need (but it helps) the contents of messages sent, just the data showing where and when messages originate and terminate.  This type of research is called traffic analysis and without it the fight against the German encryption based on the Enigma system and the Japanese encryption systems of World War 2 would not have been possible.   The Prism program is analysing traffic, something that telecoms providers necessarily do when calculating and offering tariffs to suit individuals.  We even give them details of our friends’ numbers (perhaps without telling our friends) so that we can benefit from ‘family and friends’ tariffs.

Knowing who is contacting who and when will often provide clues that something is about to happen – especially if the analysis system can correlate certain connections with known troublemakers and to intercept messages that can save lives.  This is why this has to be done in secret – you can’t stop a threat if you let him know how you’ve managed to thwart his efforts; he’ll find a way to do things differently.  Letting the neighbourhood burglar know that he’s being watched might be effective prevention but this won’t work when ideologies clash.

We’ll never know if what Snowden has done has caused lives to be lost that might have been saved or caused potential terrorists to remain free that may have been caught.  Third World villagers, wanting to save their children from the clear and present threat of deadly disease, accept vaccination as a miracle of science;  we in the West want security but we’ve already forgotten the price.


2 thoughts on “Human Rights Refracted

    • Thank you for the comment. This is, of course, the big question. Living in a society must imply some reduction in privacy unless you’re a reclusive living ‘off-grid’.
      If you want someone to protect you, then you will have to let them do the best they can. Like most notions developed through history, it would be hard to say that’s the moment when privacy was invented and it was for this reason.

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