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Human Rights, State Power And The Internet: A Chinese Take On PRISM

Leaving traces
Leaving traces
Lee Kai Fu*


BEIJING - On June 6, the Guardian newspaper in Britain and the Washington Post in the United States revealed the American government’s ongoing efforts to monitor the activities of people all around the world.

They did so only after verifying the authenticity of the confidential documents they had obtained. The top-secret documents showed that through an electronic surveillance program code-named PRISM, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) as well as the FBI have direct access to the communication data of nine major technology companies enabling them to identify suspicious communications.

On June 9, the “whistleblower,” former CIA employee Edward Snowden, revealed his identity.

Allegedly, the PRISM program was first implemented in 2007, during the George W. Bush administration. Its creation was enabled by the Protect America Act, which U.S. Congress had just passed. A year later, amendments were made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), authorizing private companies to collaborate with intelligence agencies in order to expand the NSA and other agencies’ monitoring capacity, while immunizing these private companies from potential infringement of privacy lawsuits.

This scandal has seriously harmed the reputation of the United States. However, it should encourage global citizens to think about human rights in the Internet age, in particular about people's privacy and the rights to property and the freedom derived from it.

It took thousands of years to develop the constitutional protection of human rights, with its measures and values. However, while Internet brings social progress it also provides those in power with too much room to maneuver -- and too much temptation.

This could lead to the rapid destruction of those hard-won human rights.

These rights are clearly defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by United Nations as such: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

However, in the Internet age, our e-mails, instant messages, phone records, social media, private correspondence and text messages can all be listened to, obtained, and monitored. According to Edward Snowden, the U.S. government surveillance force is all-powerful and ubiquitous. In addition, many of these intelligence agencies employees can easily invade anyone's privacy. This phenomenon urged Snowden to tell the truth, even if it comes at a great personal cost.

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Lee Kai Fu used to run Google China (TechCrunch)

The right to privacy naturally extends to property rights. Before the Internet age, in countries with the rule of law, one could say "my home is my castle.” Money, things, documents and letters could be considered safe in one’s home. If a person tried to steal this property, they were violating its owner’s rights, and breaking the law. Even governments could not intrude, peep into or plunder someone’s home illegally. However, in the Internet age, programs such as PRISM can precisely break into our electronic "homes:” mailbox, cloud storage, chats, etc., and steal our property – credit card numbers, trade secrets, intellectual property rights and so on.

Finally there is the right to freedom, and specially the freedom of expression. In the real world and countries with the rule of law, one can talk about almost any topic with trusted friends relatively safely and this is a right that is protected by most countries' constitution.

Power and wisdom

However, in the virtual online world, not only can their conversations be monitored, but they can also be stored away for a long time ready to be dug out whenever it serves somone's purposes. This is like the King Li of Zhou Dynasty, a corrupt Chinese monarch of the 9th century BC who controlled his people rather than listening to any remonstration. He sent out minions on the streets to listen to what people were saying. Anyone who was overhead talking against him would be punished.

Where is freedom of speech if we know that our secrets and flaws are captured, stored and labeled, ready to be used when needed?

In the age of big data, which we are entering, those in power will possess even greater power. Mass storage coupled with machine learning and data mining can greatly enhance the efficiency of monitoring. Not only is our information peeped at; our voices can be overheard and automatically identified – Snowden also mentioned this point.

Our online behavior can be monitored too. What we buy online and download, what we say to strangers, and even our geo-location can be under the control of a program such as PRISM. This kind of intelligent software can even predict the decisions we make and the things we do in the future.

Once these technologies are fully deployed, the suffocating and terrifying totalitarian society described in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Fourwill appear in the Internet age.

As 19th century English historian and political thinker John Dalberg-Acton stated: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

In the real world, thousands of years of human wisdom has resulted in various ways of restricting the abuse of power. But in the virtual world, where people's supervision is absent, with the support of big data technology in the name of "national security," the power of those in authority has reached a record high. Lured by absolute power, authorities will do whatever they want and this will result in rampant rights violations.

How are we to protect the vulnerable netizens from this? Should we establish more stringent standards of protection, liability? Check and balance the state apparatus through organizing international monitoring such as the Global Network Initiative? Are there technological means that can keep an eye on those in power? When rights are infringed can the rapid disclosure of the violation be a deterrent?

Hopefully, the PRISM program and Edward Snowden's revelations will awake the sleeping netizens of the world and make them understand that in the virtual environment, they are at an absolute disadvantage with those in power. We urgently need to set up limits, to balance and to hold accountable our rulers.

If we remain silent, it will be too late for regrets when we wake up one day and discover suddenly that we are living in the world described in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

*Lee Kai Fu, the former head of Google China, is one of the most prominent figures in the Chinese Internet sector and has 43.9 million followers on Weibo.

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Evandro Inetti/ZUMA
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