Technology a threat to right of privacy Silicon Valley (Irish Times; 06/04/99)
Last week, the US Congress requested that its intelligence services provide a detailed report about a global electronic eavesdropping system know as Echelon. They refused. Now congress is moving to make its request law.
Echelon is just one of the emerging uses of technology that is eroding a basic human right, privacy. The system indiscriminately monitors satellite and Internet communications traffic using keyword searches in the case of e-mail, and scanning for certain telephone numbers in the case of mobile phones.
The report was requested by Congress's House Committee on Intelligence and specifically asked that National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency provide an account as to what legal standard they use to monitor US citizens.
Another system, currently in the pipeline is EU's Enfopol, a specification that will provide European law enforcement officials with an electronic back door into the computer systems of Internet Service Providers and mobile telecommunications companies.
Furthermore, later this year, the EU plans to introduce new encryption (a technology that scrambles data so that it cannot be read by eavesdroppers) legislation, which may affect people's right to exchange messages that cannot be read by law enforcement.
Indeed, Internet and electronic privacy will be one of the biggest issues affecting citizens in the next century. Unfortunately law makers in Ireland, Europe and the US are staggeringly e naive about the effects these new laws, systems and so-called specifications will have on their future.
The problem is one of ignorance. Law makers often don't understand technology and don't look far enough into the future to see how Internet and wireless communications will touch virtually every aspect of our lives in the not too distant future. But why the concern? Police and intelligence services are only trying to catch terrorist, criminals and child pornographers. True, if they are to catch these people they need to be able to track their movements, ensure that they are not shifting large amounts of money into offshore bank accounts and nip their next deadly or grossly illegal plans in the bud.
Surely, you couldn't object to that? Unless, of course, you would object to passing a law that would enable police go through your credit-card receipts without a court order, tap your telephone at will and make a list of every place you visited, and every person you talked to without proper judicial control. Because that is what these systems allow.
Increasingly people are buying goods and services on the Internet. This not only includes a novel from say, Amazon.com, but banking, share trading and even insurance services. Back-door access to mobile telephone records will not only provide access to conversations but pinpoint the location of the mobile phone and therefore its user. Furthermore, governments mistakenly believe that their judicial system will protect their citizens from abuses of these new methods of data collection and surveillance. However perhaps it's not just the local police force that should concern us, but the police force and intelligence agencies of foreign governments.
Take the Echelon system, for example, it was established under the UKUSA agreement by the US's National Security Agency, and Britain's General Communications Headquarters to monitor the communications of the eastern bloc countries. While Echelon was designed as a system to monitor spies, according to a recent report prepared for the European Parliament's Scientific and Technology Options Assessment Panel there is evidence that member-countries also use the Echelon system for industrial espionage. The report states that British intelligence routinely collects information such as "company plans, telexes, faxes, and transcribed phone calls," and that the **NSA** provides weekly reports to the US department of commerce.
The report recommends that Europe adopts strong encryption technology rather than restrict it and points out that it is the larger nations that have invested in spying activities, leaving smaller nations vulnerable.
While few could object to these systems to apprehend criminals there needs to be awareness of exactly what powers they give governments and law enforcement. There also needs to be a way to ensure that they are being used correctly. It has taken centuries to gain the right to privacy, surely we should not throw it away so readily.