If the allegations over the extent of Prism’s mass data collection are true, then it would be a grotesque manifestation of all our fears about the digital age: Our lives being monitored and our digital information being trawled by obscure agencies that are rarely held accountable.
Prism is the American national security electronic surveillance program, which has wreaked international havoc after its existence was revealed by National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, last month.
The scale of the alleged spying conducted by the NSA is staggering. In March 2013 alone, the US agency gathered supposedly 14 billion pieces of intelligence from Iran, 13.5 billion from Pakistan, 12.7 billion from Jordan, 7.6 billion from Egypt and 6.3 billion from India.
2.5 billion people use and rely on internet services as a source of information, communication with friends and family, and for work, education and financial transactions.
The internet ended governments’ historical control over information and empowered the public in ways that were never possible before its advent. The more people use the internet and the more information the network contains about people, the more governments seem to want to pry into it.
States and governments are, by definition, entities that limit individual action. They have a vital role in protecting us from violence, but they also routinely encroach on our freedom in ways that are neither necessary nor justified.
For a government to fulfill its main function of protecting its population from harm, it must investigate and detect crime. This often requires interference with the communication of those suspected of involvement in crime, investigations that are inevitably disruptive to their lives, and prosecution if sufficient evidence of their involvement in crimes exists.
But a balance must be struck with people’s privacy and everyone’s ability to live their lives free from government interference.
NSA Director General Keith Alexander claims that surveillance through Prism and other NSA programs has stopped terrorist attacks. Assuming that this is true — and this should not be taken for granted — let’s think of what else could be justified by this line of reasoning.
What if a government starts monitoring every social interaction in the street or in restaurants through a sophisticated system of facial recognition and wide array of CCTV cameras? This is not necessarily to listen to what people say to each other, but just to see who talks to whom; just what Prism does digitally (if we are to believe that this is the extent of its function, the reality of the NSA’s global spying may be even greater).
Would you accept that a government — any government — starts monitoring who visits you at home and who you visit, even if it’s in the name of national security to prevent crime? This is not because you are suspected of engaging in criminal activity, but just because you, like everyone else, are being spied on in the hopes of finding a needle in an increasingly large haystack.
If you think this is outrageous, this is no different to what Prism does. It spies on our everyday communication, whether private, social or professional. It is no different than having a listening device in your living room.
Restrictions on privacy are sometimes necessary to prevent harm to others, but they must always also be implemented proportionately to achieve a legitimate purpose. Prism and similar indiscriminate surveillance programs put in place by other governments almost always violate human rights.
These rights are not just lofty ideals. They are binding, enforceable laws in the 167 countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Violations of our privacy are only one way that our digital rights are being undermined. Freedom of expression online is under attack by measures ranging from Iran’s ban on Facebook, to censoring political search results in China and blocking internet access altogether during the 2011 revolution in Egypt.
The revelations about Prism are a wakeup call; we should pay attention.
Internet access is integral to human rights because of its importance to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, education, and other widely recognized human rights. It is now clear that internet access, free from unlawful interference, must be protected as a legally enforceable right if our privacy is to mean anything in the 21st century.
We need a dedicated legal instrument that codifies our digital rights and clarifies the obligations of governments and responsibilities of service providers in relation to internet access. This is too important to be left to the whims of unaccountable agencies and repressive regimes.
Sherif Elsayed-Ali is deputy director of global thematic issues at Amnesty International. This article is written in his personal capacity.