The American spying scandal, and global terrorism

In the case of the NSA scandal, the tables seem to have turned: although in George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ Big Brother was communist Russia, it seems that that role has now been assumed by the world’s most open democracy!

‘One doesn’t spy on friends’ is the mildest way in which some leaders of European countries have commented following the discovery that the National Security Agency (NSA) of the USA has been tracking their electronic records. French Prime Minister Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among the first to react, and pretty violenty too. The respective American ambassadors were summoned and most likely given a proper dressing down, although details have not surfaced. Spanish authorities were appalled that in one month 60 million phone calls in Spain were tapped. President Obama spoke to Hollande and Merkel, reportedly giving them assurance that their mobile phones will no longer be tapped. However, it is also reported that he remained silent on the news that he had known since 2010 that Angela Merkel’s phone was being tapped.

The Chinese reaction was no less vehement, as was expected anyway.

In contrast to the above was the reaction of India when the scandal first broke out: was almost conciliatory, if we go by what the External Affairs Minister of India, Salman Khurshid declared at that time. He defended it on the grounds that such an activity was necessary in the fight against terrorism, which no doubt it is. But then it is not as if France and Germany, and Spain too, are not exposed to terrorism. That did not prevent them from being trenchant, at least publicly, if only to stand up for the dignity of their country and at the same time send a strong message to their people as genuine leaders are expected to do.

It is not only known but widely conceded now that in the contemporary world, the notion of privacy and confidentiality has all but disappeared as the ‘rise of technology is shattering even the illusion of privacy.’ Everything that has got anything to do with electronics is now traceable, and practically all of it is tracked. We modern humans have asked for, invented and promoted the development of a surveillance society. CCTV cameras, smart phones, smart cards, smart meters, smart TVs, the search engines of the internet like Google, etc., the GPS and satellites – are there any limits on the information superhighway?

The information available can be used or misused, and no security arrangement or mechanism is foolproof, as the numerous examples of hacking around the world, some of them very spectacular indeed – like Julian Assange’s and Snowden’s feats of defiance – have clearly demonstrated. Governments can use them to track political opponents they want to get at – because ‘governments are made up of people and people are prone to misuse information when driven by greed or curiosity or a will to power’; hackers can siphon off millions from accounts and banks. But there are also cybercrimes taking place on a smaller scale that affect individuals, especially where it concerns withdrawals from ATMs – and there are cases locally of victims who have not been able to obtain any reparation for their loss.

Although ‘a majority of Americans feel that it’s more important to fully investigate terrorist threats than to protect personal privacy’, still they are apprehensive about the potential reach of government ‘because the government has the power to audit our tax returns, to prosecute and imprison us, to grant or deny licences to do business … there is an entirely understandable concern that the government may abuse this power.’ We can easily see that such concerns are not restricted to Americans only because governments all over have a say in big data, and the situation is perhaps only slightly worse in non-democratic countries.

Specifically in the case of the NSA scandal, the tables seem to have turned: although in George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ Big Brother was communist Russia, it seems that that role has now been assumed by the world’s most open democracy!

Once the dust has settled, though, we may well have to trade some of our privacy for security, given that new figures available to the CNN ahead of scheduled release in December show that terrorist attacks and fatalities have reached a record high in 2012. This is according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) based at the University of Maryland which maintains a Global Terrorism Database, having records that go back to 1970. It is one of 12 Centres of Excellence tracking terrorism that are funded by the Department of Homeland Security, which was set up after the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

In the year 2012 there were over 8500 terrorist attacks in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with nearly 15500 deaths, representing increases of 69% and 89% respectively over the previous year (2011). The toll for the first six months of 2013 has already reached 5100 attacks, predicting another rise by the end of the year in both attacks and deaths.

It has truly been said that the greatest enemy of man is man himself. Do we need further proof?

* Published in print edition on 31 October 2013

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