“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.”


Prism (Photo credit: jonpayne)

“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

~William Pitt,

British Prime Minister.
Speech in the House of Commons, 1783.

The revelation this weekend about the”PRISM” implemented by the US uber secret National Security Agency reminded me of the above quote. Its deliberately provocative but a true reflection of the fact government will always justify encroachment of civil liberties on the basis of it being necessary for national security.

What is the balance between the right to privacy in the digital age and giving proportionate power to ensure the dangers born in the shadows do not see the light of day?

“PRISM” evolved out of the the Patriot Act passed in the aftermath of September 11th. Signed into law with sunset provisions meaning the act should have expired in 2005. It didn’t and serves as proof that once government is granted certain powers reclaiming them is much more difficult.

The ability of centralized government authority to harvest huge amounts of data pertaining to the lives of millions of people evokes the fear that our every keystroke, phone call, email, and Facebook post is accessible to the authorities at will. In reality “PRISM” doesn’t not record the content of phone calls only phone numbers, duration of call, location and time. “Prism” is able to “collect data” from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Skype, Yahoo. You name it.

As technology evolves unfortunately those would seek to do harm evolve their tactics as well. It’s not unreasonable to expect the strategy and tools of security services and law enforcement to move with the times as well.

What seems to be missing is transparent debate about where to draw the line. A Guardian article leads with the headline White House “welcomes media interest” in Prism insisting the “time is ripe for debate”. Why not be more open about it earlier? The reality is “PRISM” would have remained shrouded in secrecy had it not been for whistle-blower Edward  Snowden. No doubt a harsh fate will await him should he ever set foot again on US soil.

Our equivalent of the the NSA is GCHQ (Global Communications Headquarters). A donut shaped building in unassuming Cheltenham which conducts signals intelligence and intercepts.

For us here in the UK the Draft Communications Data Bill nicknamed by its detractors as the “Snoopers Charter” would require:

“Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records (but not the content) of each user’s internet browsing activity (including social media), email correspondence, voice calls, internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services and store the records for 12 months. Retention of email and telephone contact data for this time is already required.”

The Patriot Act in the wake of September 11th was passed in a mere 48 hours between introduction of the final draft and passage into law. The objective is for the Draft Communications Bill to be signed into law before the next general election. Have a real think about whether you feel the above represents proportionate intrusion of privacy to protect against serious crime and terrorism.