Privacy has become one of the hottest political topics and social problems of the 21st century. World Governments have been scattering left and right for a while now dodging questions about secret spy agencies and operations – particularity after top-secret leaks from whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
One of the biggest problems is that everyday users of technology have no idea how to protect themselves. This makes them exceptionally vulnerable and leaves plenty of scope for abuse. Even when hackers and tech savvy individuals say to use this or that for protection, it’s not a condom, and it’s not as easy to apply. In effect they may as well be speaking a foreign language because so many users have no idea what they’re saying.
Thankfully, the United Nations Human Rights Council has felt a strong need to step in. They have recently announced the appointment of a special rapporteur who is effectively an independent expert. They will be appointed in June 2015 and will play a critical role in developing the meaning of privacy as a basic human right and implementing guidelines to assist counties and agencies comply with the UN’s stance on privacy.
The special rapporteur will also speak to key stakeholders and research any privacy violations which have occurred. I’d expect this will focus heavily on digital technology and advancements in communication. Some have speculated on exactly how much transparency will be provided by the special rapporteur, particularly from some of the spy agencies operating nationally and globally.
The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK and the National Security Agency (NSA) based in the US are said to be global leaders in metadata collection. Using top secret computer systems they have been able to monitor millions of digital technology users for several years. All US telecommunications companies are said to have assisted in their collection in one way or another and have even had to disclose personal credit card information.
In the past year or so, there has been a significant amount of talk about their practices. Privacy watchers have even suggested these agencies may have gone rouge, pushing the bounds of what’s legal within their jurisdiction.
One system which is under intense scrutiny operates under the code-name Tempora. It intercepts communications via fibre-optic cables, which is primarily how the internet operates. What they have been doing and are continuing to do, is accessing and storing massive amounts of private and public citizen information without any suspicion of crime or terrorism. It’s believed the program is so vast that it collects data from each and every phone user in America.
Another program with the code-name PRISM has also come under direct fire. Users of internet giants Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Skype have all had their data collected and handed discretely to the NSA and FBI.
Reports have surfaced that the NSA had planed to scrap metadata collection prior to Snowden’s NSA leaks. However, despite claiming it’s been ineffective in the “war on terror” and excessively expensive, this system is still very much operational. Many eyes are looking at June 1st when the law allowing this practice will expire.
The renewal of this legislation won’t be smooth thanks to Snowden. Some politicians believe the legality to collect each private citizens telephone data is an essential national security tool, while others strongly believe it goes against the US constitution. At present no-one is giving away any secrets concerning the future of this legislation, so only time will tell.
Privacy advocates are obviously hoping for it’s dissolution, plus many will be holding their breath for the first privacy report to come out of the UN. Considering the significant load of metadata collected by the GCHQ, NSA and FBI alone, the soon-to-be-appointed special rapporteur will clearly have their work cut out for them!