The revelations of data collection on a massive scale by the United States’ security agencies of details of telephone calls and internet use of its citizens and foreigners are having reverberations around the world.
Much of the responses have been on the potential invasion of privacy of individuals not only in the US but anywhere in the world who use US-based internet servers.
Also revealed is a US presidential directive to security agencies to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for US cyber-attacks.
This lays the US open to charges of double standards and hypocrisy: accusing other countries of engaging in internet snooping or hacking and cyber warfare, when it has itself established the systems to do both on a mega scale.
The revelations, published in the Guardian and Wall Street Journal, and based on a leak by a former US intelligence official, include that US security agencies have access to telephone data of Verizon Communications, AT&T and Sprint Nextel, as well as from credit card transactions.
They also can access data from major internet companies – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, AOL, Apple, PalTalk, Skype and YouTube – under the Prism surveillance programme.
Millions of internet users around the world use the servers or web-based services of the companies mentioned.
Two American citizen groups, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the New York Civil Liberties Union, have filed a lawsuit against the US administration.
“Those programmes constitute unreasonable intrusions into American’s private lives that’s protected by the Fourth Amendment [on search and seizure],” said Brett Kaufman of the ACLU, as quoted by IPS news agency.
Governments and people outside the US are equally upset, or more so, that they apparently are also covered by the massive US surveillance programme.
The European Union’s commissioner of justice Viviane Reding has written to the US attorney general asking if European citizens’ personal information had been part of the intelligence gathering, and what avenues are available for Europeans to find out if they had been spied on.
She cited the “gravity of the situation and serious concerns expressed in public opinion” in Europe and called for “swift and concrete answers.”
In China, commentators and opinion makers are citing double standards on the part of the US. An article in the China Daily commented that the massive U.S. global surveillance program as revealed is certain to stain Washington’s overseas image and test developing China-U.S. ties.
“For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyberespionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the U.S. is the unbridled power of the government,” according to Li Haidong, researcher at China Foreign Affairs University, as quoted in China Daily.
An editorial in another Chinese paper, Global Daily, stated: “China needs to seek an explanation from Washington. We are not bystanders. The issue of whether the U.S. as an Internet superpower has abused its powers touches on our vital interests directly.”
Cyber-warfare was one of the key issues that US President Barrack Obama brought up with Chinese President Xi Jinpeng in their summit last week in California, with Obama reportedly pressing Xi to curb cyber-spying by Chinese agencies and companies.
The breaking news about the massive US intelligence gathering on internet users must have caused some discomfort to Obama when bringing up this issue.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson last week reiterated that “China is also a victim to the most sophisticated cyber hacking…We’re willing to engage with the international community to jointly safeguard the peace, security, openness and cooperation of the cyberspace.”
Though less publicised, one major component of the leaks published in The Guardian, was a 18-page directive from President Obama to his security and intelligence officials to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for US cyber-attacks.
The 18-page Presidential Directive, issued in October 2012, states that what it calls Offensive Cyber Effects Operations (OCEO) “can offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance US national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging”, according to the 7 June Guardian article by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill.
The directive says the government will “identify potential targets of national importance where OCEO can offer a favourable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power”.
The aim of the document was “to put in place tools and a framework to enable government to make decisions” on cyber actions, a senior administration official told the Guardian.
Obama’s move to establish a potentially aggressive cyber warfare doctrine will heighten fears over the increasing militarization of the internet, comments the Guardian article.
The Policy Directive defines OCEO as “operations and related programs or activities … conducted by or on behalf of the US Government, in or through cyberspace, that are intended to enable or produce cyber effects outside United States government networks.”
The document includes caveats and precautions stating that all US cyber operations should conform to US and international law, and that any operations “reasonably likely to result in significant consequences require specific presidential approval”.
According to the Guardian, the US is understood to have already participated in at least one major cyber attack, the use of the Stuxnet computer worm targeted on Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges, the legality of which has been the subject of controversy.
In the presidential directive, the criteria for offensive cyber operations in the directive is not limited to retaliatory action but vaguely framed as advancing “US national objectives around the world”.
Obama further authorized the use of offensive cyber attacks in foreign nations without their government’s consent whenever “US national interests and equities” require such nonconsensual attacks. It expressly reserves the right to use cyber tactics as part of what it calls “anticipatory action taken against imminent threats”.
The Guardian commented: “The revelation that the US is preparing a specific target list for offensive cyber-action is likely to reignite previously raised concerns of security researchers and academics, several of whom have warned that large-scale cyber operations could easily escalate into full-scale military conflict.”
Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue issued a report on 4 June on the increasing use of surveillance, according to an Inter Press Service article.
His report noted that surveillance technologies are developing much faster than legal frameworks can adapt to regulate them. It cautioned specifically against the US’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which paved the way for NSA activities, according to IPS.
The report argued that unfettered state access to surveillance technologies could compromise human rights to privacy and freedom of expression, as protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The report warned too against the use of “an amorphous concept of national security” as a reason to invade people’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression, arguing that such an invasion potentially “threatens the foundations of a democratic society”.
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