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.

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-Four will 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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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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