Sunday, 23 June 2013

No privacy on the Net !

Revelations about PRISM, a US government program that harvests data on the Internet, has sparked concerns about privacy and civil rights violations. But has there ever been real privacy and security on the WWW?

 Demonstrators hold posters during a demonstration against the US Internet surveillance program of the NSA, PRISM, at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, Germany, ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to the German capital.

IMAGINE a time before email, when all your correspondence was sent through the post. How would you feel if you knew that somebody at the post office was recording the details of all the people you were corresponding with, “just in case” you did something wrong?

I think quite a few of you would be upset about it.

Similarly, some Americans are furious over revelations made about a system called PRISM. In the last few weeks, an allegation has been made that the US government is harvesting data on the Internet by copying what travels through some of its Internet Service Providers.

The US Director of National Intelligence has said that PRISM “is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program”, but its detractors are not convinced that this doesn’t mean no such program exists.

I think there are mainly two kinds of responses to this revelation: “Oh my God!” and “What took them so long?”.

The Internet has never really been secure. Because your data usually has to travel via systems owned by other people, you are at their mercy as to what they do with it. The indications are that this is already being done elsewhere.

Countries such as China, India, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom allegedly already run similar tracking projects on telecommunications and the Internet, mostly modelled on the US National Security Agency’s (unconfirmed) call monitoring programme. For discussion, I’ll limit myself for the moment to just emails – something that most people would recognise as being private and personal.

I find many people are surprised when I tell them that sending email over the Internet is a little bit like sending your message on a postcard. Just because you need a password to access it, doesn’t mean it’s secure during transmission.

The analogy would be that your mailbox is locked so only you can open it, but those carrying the postcard can read it before it reaches its final destination. Of course, there are ways to mitigate this. One has to be careful about what one put in emails in the first place. Don’t send anything that would be disastrous if it were forwarded to someone else without your permission.

You could also encrypt your email, so only the receiver with the correct password or key could read it, but this is difficult for most end users to do. (For those interested in encrypting emails, I would recommend looking at a product called PGP.)

The analogy holds up for other Internet traffic. It’s easy to monitor, given enough money and time. And as easy as it is for the Good Guys to try to monitor the Bad Guys, it’s just as easy for the Bad Guys to monitor us hapless members of the public.

But who do we mean by the Bad Guys? Specifically, should the government and law-enforcement agencies be categorised as ‘Bad Guys’ for purposes of privacy? Generally, the line oft quoted is “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about”.

Yet, I think we all accept that there should be a fundamental right to privacy, for everybody from anybody. An interesting corollary to being able to express your thoughts freely is that you should also be able to decide when and how you make them public.

The fault in relying on organisations that say “trust us” isn’t in the spirit of their objectives, but in how the humans in them are flawed in character and action.

An example quoted regularly at the moment is how the FBI collected information about Martin Luther King because they considered him the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country”.

One way of defining the boundaries are by codifying them in laws. For example, the Malaysian Personal Data Protection Act prohibits companies from sharing personal data with third parties without the original owner’s consent.

However, this law explicitly does not apply to the federal and state governments of Malaysia. Another clause indicates that consent is not necessary if it is for the purpose of “administration of justice”, or for the “exercise of any functions conferred on any person by or under any law”.

In relation to the revelations of PRISM, several questions come to mind: Can Internet traffic (or a subset of it) be considered “personal data”? Is it possible for government agencies to collect and store such data without your consent?

And if so, what safeguards are there to ensure that this personal data is accurate, is used correctly and is relevant for storage in the first place?

This should be a sharp point of debate, not just in terms of which of our secrets the government can be privy to, but also of which of the government’s information should be readily accessible by us.

True, there is so much data out there that analysing it is not a trivial task. However, companies such as Google are doing exactly that kind of work on large volumes of unstructured data so that you can search for cute kittens. The technology is already on its way.

Perhaps I am being over-cautious, but it seems a bit fantastical that people can know your deepest and darkest secrets by just monitoring a sequence of 1’s and 0’s. But, to quote science fiction author Phillip K. Dick, “It’s strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then”.


> Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at

Related post:

US Spy Snowden Says U.S. Hacking China Since 2009