The American Nightmare: Privacy Vs Security

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American Dream

Benjamin Franklin, who is regarded as one of the Founding Fathers of the nation that proudly sings the Star-Spangled Banner, once said, “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”   Moving the clock ahead by about three hundred years, we have the current President of the United States, Barack Obama, who said, “in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.”

The convolution of the “American dream” and what it implies, has wrought havoc in the socio-political landscape, which has continually evolved. May be, a few within the American political fold would refute Mr. Franklin’s statement by stressing on the volatile political and security landscape. Perhaps, Mr. Franklin did not take into consideration that magical boxes of light with a keyboard in front of them would constitute the gravest threat that the land of the free and the home of the brave would face. However, it is immaterial to discuss the volatility of changing political perspectives, what must be constant and an overriding force to dictate how a government operates is the element of law. The legal implications of a state defying its own or internationally ratified doctrines of legal principle.

In June of 2013, a person of whom the world had never heard of, an employee of the National Security Agency, by the name of Edward Snowden shook the world and the US Government by revealing that the foremost security agency in the developed world, was keeping tabs on, for the lack of a better word, everyone.

Pakistan, according to reports, was the second most surveilled country by the NSA, this came as a rude shock given the amount of existing “data-sharing” between the American Government and its ally. However, Pakistan itself prides on being the last in implementing the latest technology and ensuring the essential freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of 1973. But the core crux remains how the theory of American exceptionalism in regard to international laws has allowed the State to willfully disregard the validity of international law and is unperturbed about the violations its own government agencies are now committing.

After September 11, 2001, the US Congress felt that the US was grossly ill-equipped to tackle terrorist threats on domestic soil. The restrictions placed on agencies to conduct domestic “spying” which included, but was not restricted to wiretapping and other surveillance methodology were subsequently removed, though the agencies had to obtain court orders to conduct such surveillance, giving the judicial arm of the State supreme authority to condone such acts. The Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that worried Congressmen due to the blatant manner in which it stripped civil liberties, remained intact and was renewed. However, this post does not refer to national legislation, but the manner in which the US is violating international law.

The United States of America ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992, giving the Human Rights Committee the authority to review human rights violations which are either taking place with the legal jurisdiction of the US or violations which US agencies are committing. In the light of evolving technology, the UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay at the opening session of the Human Rights Committee meeting stated, “Powerful new technologies offer the promise of improved enjoyment of human rights, but they are vulnerable to mass electronic surveillance and interception. This threatens the right to privacy and freedom of expression and association” reaffirming the notion that the American breach of citizen and noncitizen privacy is a major breach of international law.

Turning the interrogation lamp onto the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, Section 702 of which gives US Security agencies broad, sweeping powers to conduct surveillance is in gross violation of the ICCPR which provides the following four principles to gauge whether such power is within the realm of human rights:

  • Limited by statute and clearly defined in nature and scope
  • Narrowly tailored to address legitimate governmental objectives, such as threats to national security
  • Subject to independent oversight systems to prevent abuse
  • Applied equally irrespective of nationality

Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which the PRISM program falls, fails each of the above requirements. The Report and Recommendations the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies states, “The United States must protect, at once, two different forms of security: national security and personal privacy”. Moreover, the report also states, “The United States should be a leader in championing the protection by all nations of fundamental human rights, including the right of privacy, which is central to human dignity”.

Such statements made by the President’s advisory group stand in stark contrast with the practice of the US Government. Such disregard for international doctrines are at polar opposites with US rhetoric and global policies. The Snowden revelations have already created ripples through the cyber sphere, stifling choices made by citizens on the services they connect to, what they make publicly available and the activities they engage in online, restricting their freedom of choice, which is also a violation of international law. What the US must realize is that internet security is a two way street: By giving legislative effect to collect, indiscriminately, personal information of non citizens,  can give other Governments the incentive to do the same with American citizens. In order to protect the rights, interests and information of its own citizens, the US administration must ensure the same of citizens which do not salute the star spangled banner. The there is also a significant debate about the NSA spying on it’s own citizens as well, an issue that has grabbed the attention of all of US media.

The United States of America is widely considered the sole global power: It must be the harbinger of peace, stability and the protection of fundamental freedoms, the very idea upon which the US Declaration of Independence was penned. The US must be the very example of adhering to global policies and laws, and not be the one violating them if it doesn’t want to be seen as hypocritical.

Research Associate at Bolo Bhi
Osman Ali Ansari has completed his Bachelors in Business Administration from the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science & Technology (SZABIST) and is currently part of the University of London International Programme in the Faculty of Law. He has represented Pakistan in various Model United Nations Conferences including in Geneva, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and London. He is currently a Research & Program Associate at Bolo Bhi and has an avid interest in international humanitarian law, public policy and is passionate about aviation.

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