Last week the US National Security Agency (NSA) was forced to admit it has been conducting covert collection of information on both US citizens and foreigners since 2007. This came out after news reports revealed the existence of a program called Prism, which reportedly enabled the NSA to access information from service providers and telecommunication companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Verizon. Edward former NSA employee, admitted that he leaked information about Prism to media sources after he realized its implications on civil liberties.
Prism, also known officially as US-984XN, enables surveillance on Internet and phone records such as email, video, photos and voice over IP conversations of people residing outside the United States, or US citizens having communications with foreigners. The program also enables not only metadata recording of login notifications and social networking details but also access to content such as file transfers as well. It was even reported to give the NSA access to daily logs from telecommunications companies of customer telephone calls.
Despite the attempt of the US government to downplay the implications of this program, the expose struck a chord with many civil libertarians especially with regard to Prism’s implications on the right to privacy. The US government denies that it is listening in on its citizens’ phone conversations and instead stresses the program’s importance on its anti-terror capabilities.
The implications of obtaining even metadata such as what numbers you call, when you called these numbers and the location when you made these calls would already give a lot of information about your movement and real-life social networks. Add to these your Internet activities such as your email connections, the files that you’ve sent, your virtual calls, your texts and Facebook friends and then a fairly good profile of you can be generated.
If these points seem familiar to some, it is because these are the same arguments that information technology experts raised against the Cybercrime law that is now being questioned in the Philippine Supreme Court. Aside from the provisions penalizing online libel, the Cybercrime law allows the real-time collection of traffic data that is very similar to the functions of the NSA Prism program.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act, or RA 10175, effectively allows for the warrantless surveillance on users of computer systems. Much like Prism, government agencies will be allowed access to Internet and phone records as well as its content. The said measure was signed into law last year by President Benigno Aquino 3rd. The law’s constitutionality was later questioned before the High Court and is still currently being deliberated by the justices.
In its intent “to effectively prevent and combat offenses by facilitating their detection, investigation and prosecution at both the domestic and international levels, and by providing arrangements for fast and reliable international cooperation,” specifically on cybercrime, the Cybercrime law assumes that government can intrude to our persons and activities through the virtual world.
Under this law, the DOJ is being allowed to issue an order to restrict or block access to computer data that was found to be prima facie evidence to violations of the act. This so-called takedown provision does not even require probable cause and takes away safeguards enshrined in our bill of rights.
Programs like Prism and the Cybercrime law are attempts to erode civil liberties not only in the virtual world but also on our real off-line life. Edward Snowden and other whistle blowers should be hailed for what they did for exposing these threats. Even then, we should all be concerned and actively resist these attempts to further entrench Big Brother in our midst.