Electronic Surveillance: a choice between privacy and national security

By Assad Bhuglah

Electronic Surveillance or Mass surveillance is the practice of spying on an entire, or significant part
of a population. It can involve anything from CCTV monitoring and email interceptions, to wire-
tapping and computer hacking. Often, electronic surveillance is carried out by the state but it can
also be carried out by corporations, either on behalf of government or on their own initiative.

In December 2016, the United Kingdom enacted a law, the Investigatory Powers Act, giving it
unprecedented authority to gather private citizens’ data. This Act requires communications service
providers to store up to 12 months of user’s browsing history and phone data for potential review by
law enforcement. The law also empowers intelligence officials to monitor residents’ communications
and even hack their correspondences if the Secretary of State grants a warrant to do so. This is the
first surveillance setup of its kind in the democratic world. No other European country, Canada,
Australia or the United States has legal obligation to retain digital communication records for that
amount of time. Under this legal structure the U.K. government can now make demands from
private companies that are not different from those made by repressive governments like China or
Russia. This wide-reaching and excessively intrusive law which legalizes electronic surveillance
undermines digital privacy and privileges national security. It is very likely that the United States
could look to the United Kingdom’s new law as a model for expanding electronic surveillance.

However, in a judgment handed down in Luxembourg in December 2016, the European Court of
Justice severely condemned the British government’s mass surveillance powers and declared that
the “general and indiscriminate retention” of data about people’s communications and locations
was inconsistent with privacy rights. The court stated that the “highly invasive” bulk storage of
private data “exceeds the limits of what is strictly necessary and cannot be considered to be
justified, within a democratic society.” But as the UK has voted to leave the EU, it may not be
worried by the court ruling. The British government will have the latitude to enable police and spy
agencies to access vast amounts of data on people’s internet browsing, instant messages, emails,
phone calls, and social media conversations.

Electronic surveillance is the monitoring and collection of digital footprints left behind by people.
This can be done in a large variety of ways, from following someone on CCTV to reading text
messages, sifting through internet browsing history and social media or even secretly activating
webcams or microphones to spy on people. Government in several countries is collecting
information on millions of citizens. Phone, Internet, and email habits, credit card and bank
records—virtually all information that is communicated electronically is subject to the watchful eye
of the state. For the effectiveness of governmental apparatus, knowledge is power. Many
governments, therefore, justify electronic surveillance for the purpose of collecting as much
information as possible to keep their citizens safe from harm or to keep order in the country or to
prevent "terrorism". However, many of the data collected about people's personal lives can be used
nefariously against the people. During the Arab Spring, for example, governments used electronic
surveillance to keep track of protesters and other dissidents. Many people were arrested as a direct
result of their digital movements, which made them easy targets for law enforcement and
intelligence agencies.

Email is extraordinarily vulnerable. Messages “travel” through a number of different channels before
their arrival to the intended recipient. At any one of these channels, an email can be intercepted and
its content viewed. If your email is not encrypted, the content of your messages is at its most
vulnerable in terms of being viewed by a third party. Email messages can be intercepted and then
reformatted to be sent to the intended recipient or someone else altogether. This kind of
interception is called a “man-in- the middle-attack.” Email addresses can be disguised as another
person or organization in a process called masquerading. A more invasive and insidious form of
disguise is spoofing, in which email addresses are actually forged. An unknown third party, such as
private security firms or government agencies or everyday Internet users can disguise themselves
with the help of websites and extract information from intended recipients. Likewise, Triggerfish is a
technology that mimics a cell phone tower, picking up on a cell phone’s signal and essentially,
through a man-in- the-middle attack, intercepts calls and reveals numbers dialed and received,
locations, and other information that can pinpoint the identity of the cell phone user.

Intelligence agencies and other governmental departments are responsible for most widespread
electronic surveillance. They have the resources and capabilities to track large groups of people,
either within their own country or outside of it. Besides governments, there are also a lot of
companies who use the Internet to track what people do. This collection of large swaths of data will
then be used in different ways to generate revenue for the company, for example, by providing
other companies with the browsing habits of people so that advertisements can be targeted more
accurately towards these tracked people. Many companies also use electronic surveillance as a way
of keeping track of what their employees do during working hours.

Europe’s ability to continue to take the moral high ground of protecting privacy is rapidly declining.
In recent months, and in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks across Europe, Germany, France
and the United Kingdom have passed laws granting their surveillance agencies virtually unfettered
power to conduct bulk interception of communications across Europe and beyond. Across Europe,
from Poland to Austria, from Italy to Sweden, parliaments have been adopting expansive domestic
and foreign surveillance legislation in recent months and years. This wave of legislation, pushed by
populist agendas and public outrage in the wake of recent terrorist attacks on European soil, is a
flagrant disregard to decades of jurisprudence by the European Court of Human Rights and more
recent jurisprudence by Court of Justice of EU, and it puts in danger privacy protections across the
European continent.

Electronic surveillance is in expansion across the world, although its penetration and coverage vary
from country to country. If this trend continues, the privacy enjoyed by humankinds up till now will
become a by-gone matter for future generations.


Century Welfare Association

Let Our Deeds Speak For Us.

Founded January 1969