In June 2013, news broke out in media outlets around the world of a secret program operated by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) regarding the collection of information directly from several major U.S. Internet companies. The program, referred to as “PRISM”, involves data collection on a large scale from phones, streams of Internet traffic, and content stored by Internet companies. Despite denials by major Internet companies of their complicity with the NSA regarding this program, leaked reports have also indicated the agency paid millions of dollars to major technology companies to cover the costs of the program.
The revelation of the NSA’s PRISM program has raised concerns around the world over potential harms to online privacy. As the program’s efforts are directed primarily at non-American citizens, it is clear this is an issue of global concern, especially considering the dependence so many Internet users have worldwide on products and platforms developed by U.S. based companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook.
In a CNN op-ed Ron Deibert, (Director, Citizen Lab) suggested that the revelation of the program’s existence will ultimately prove detrimental to Internet freedom. Authoritarian regimes may now cite PRISM as an excuse to tighten and restrict Internet access for their citizens while simultaneously engaging in a digital arms race to offset the United States’ intelligence capabilities. Deibert explained that it is incumbent on the United States to fully “consider the international implications” of actions done by government agencies in the pursuit of domestic security. In a separate article on the use of metadata by security agencies, Deibert also emphasized the need for citizens to ask the “big questions about the appropriate checks and balances of security agencies in a liberal democratic society as we undergo such a profound Big Data revolution.”
Partners in the Cyber Stewards Network have joined the chorus of voices speaking out against the program and its implications on domestic safeguards for data protection across the world. Alberto Cerda, International Program Director of Chilean NGO Derechos Digitales, wrote in an op-ed that the “violation of fundamental rights has a global character. What good is it for me to be protected in Chile if it’s actually the US government that’s violating my rights?” Derechos Digitales has cautioned users to be mindful of what content they upload on any network.
Ramiro Alvarez Ugarte, Director of Access to Information for Asociación por los Derechos Civiles, has also suggested that the PRISM revelations should force netizens in countries outside of the US—such as his native Argentina—to look at the powers that domestic intelligence agencies wield, especially where governmental oversight of these organizations is lacking. Ugarte has also participated in discussions on privacy rights in Argentina with other like-minded organizations in the context of the PRISM revelations.
The PRISM revelations have encouraged other Stewards to advocate for greater knowledge on data protection techniques. Lobsang Gyatso Sither of the Tibet Action Institute has placed increased emphasis on the use of encryption technology in his own everyday work and when training Tibetans on practices for securely transmitting sensitive information. Nathan Freitas, Director of the Guardian Project (an initiative to develop secure mobile applications) and a member of the Tibetan Action Institute, expressed concern that the disclosure of the United States’ surveillance activities will erode the “moral high ground” from which the country has pressured the Chinese government to curtail its own digital spying.
The PRISM controversy is one of many issues involving surveillance that is part of the global campaign for Internet freedom and the freedom of citizens from unwanted privacy violations. ‘Gbenga Sesan, CEO of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria has warned of the dangers to citizens of increased government surveillance in the context of the Nigerian government’s multi-million dollar contract with Elbit Systems. Pakistani organization Bytes for All has also submitted a court petition challenging the use of the FinFisher software suite in the country.