Recently, Edward Snowden, an employee of the US National Security Agency (NSA) spilled the beans in Hong Kong, volunteering information about the electronic snooping being done by the US on worldwide phone calls, emails and social media. According to him, the NSA is using a new tool called Prism which helps in analyzing terabytes of database of intercepted information.
There has been a hullabaloo in the US, Europe and other countries, including India, against this programme of the US government. The main criticism being that it violates individual privacy and transgresses international boundaries. The Barack Obama administration is defending the programme, citing national security.
The US authorities are claiming that a number of terrorist attacks in the US and 20 other countries have been foiled with the help of information obtained using Prism. Also, before implementing the programme, required approval of the Supreme Court was obtained and that the programme is reviewed every 90 days. The US authorities have also clarified that no snooping is done on people who are not on the security radar.
The track record of US security agencies after 9/11 in safeguarding the US against terrorist attacks has been excellent indeed. Electronic snooping has played a key role in it. Understandably, both Democrats and Republicans are together, for a change, in backing Prism.
What needs to be highlighted is that Prism is not the first such programme which has been implemented by the US or the Western world. Immediately after World War 2, the US, some European countries and Australia established a worldwide electronic snooping system called Echelon. Using its infrastructure, they have for decades listened in to and recorded worldwide phone conversations and teletype/telegraph messages which were in use at that time.
The snooping was initially done using radio interception and by listening in to traffic at the national and international gateways and communication hubs on submarine and other cable-based networks. In due course, satellite-based snooping devices were also incorporated. In fact, communications via satellites themselves have become a lucrative source for snooping.
As the communications technology advanced rapidly, Echelon was upgraded and updated and is still very much in use. Echelon started as a Cold War programme, aimed primarily at the Eastern Block nations. However, terrorism has added a new dimension and the area of intelligence interest has widened. Most terrorists are not only based in the Middle East, Pakistan and parts of Africa but even in European countries. They are the ones who are more dangerous. The Boston Marathon bombing has shown that those residing in the US territory are not immune to Jihadist ideology.
The use of mobile and satellite phones as also internet-based communications, including social media, has made the task of interception both easier and cumbersome. The communication origin points have multiplied and users can keep moving and sending information. This has resulted in the US coming out with Prism.
Globally, about 70% of all intelligence is obtained through electronic evesdropping. This is a tool which is indispensable if security of a nation is to be ensured. Hence, all nations in the world resort to electronic snooping.
Internet and modern communication technology like packet switching have made inter- country boundaries irrelevant as far as passing information is concerned. Similarly, satellites can listen in to communications worldwide. International traffic from every country has multiplied exponentially. One country intercepting communications of another country is no big deal when terrorists have a global network and reach. Since Pakistan is the biggest source of terrorism, according to a newspaper report, it is also the most significant target of US snooping.
Most nations have laid down legal safeguards against compromising individual privacy. How these safeguards are implemented or violated depends on the strength of character of those in power; the politicians, bureaucrats and law-enforcement agencies. Sadly, India’s record in this regard has not been praiseworthy. A former Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer has stated that “We have been keeping a watch on millions of phone and internet users in the country with special focus on people who post anti-government content on the Net.” The misuse of electronic snooping infrastructure for political purposes is another important aspect to be put under the scanner.
Indian intelligence agencies should instead focus their meager resources on gathering intelligence about neighbouring countries, especially China and Pakistan. India’s intelligence about its potential enemies is woeful indeed and has always been found wanting.
Media and human rights groups can play an important role in keeping the misuse of electronic snooping by government authorities under check. There is a need to achieve a balance between privacy and security. However, it must be realised that in today’s dangerous world, there have to be some trade-offs with individual privacy, if national security is to be ensured.
The writer is former Signal Officer-in-Chief. Views expressed are personal