Democracy, autocracy, or people’s republic: your information is fair game for everyone

Unlike your personal information, NSA HQ is both impenetrable and inscrutable.
Unlike your personal information, NSA HQ is both impenetrable and inscrutable.
Image: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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A headline in this morning’s Financial Times informed us that “UK fears grow over China’s potential to eavesdrop,” in reference to yesterday’s release of a British intelligence committee report into the security risk posed by Huawei, the giant Chinese telecoms firm that is now deeply embedded in Britain’s telecoms infrastructure.

China is a great bogeyman. Surely those of us who live in modern democracies could never trust those secretive communists who spy on their own people and censor candle emoticons. But what China does quite openly, Western governments do through secret yet “entirely legal” programs, as recent bombshells about surveillance by the US National Security Agency have shown. And it isn’t just America that is unable to resist snooping. Everyone is at it.

Here’s Britain’s draft Communications Data Bill, better known as the “snooper’s charter.” Presently in limbo, it seeks to outsource to internet providers what the NSA is doing by itself: retaining vast quantities of data, including emails, calls and browsing history, in the event that they may one day be needed for security investigations. There’s a similar proposal in Australia, which seeks to impose a retention period of two years on communication data. India operates a central monitoring system, which, as the name suggests, gives the the government a centralised location from which to monitor all phone and internet traffic in the country. Even the Netherlands wants to allow its law enforcement agents to be able to break into computers.

Then there are the autocracies, which are more ham-handed in their dealings. Saudi Arabia this week shut down Viber, an online messaging service, and it has previously threatened to bar Blackberry, because it found itself unable to monitor those communication platforms. Egypt was considering buying surveillance software from a European firm before Mubarak was chucked out. And “governmental IT intrusion” software is up and running in dozens of countries, democracies and autocracies alike.

It doesn’t even matter where you are or whether your country spies on you (which it does). Few of us, wherever we live, can avoid using at least some of the US-based services that are reportedly part of the NSA’s surveillance program. Your data, whether it’s an email to your neighbour or a web search, very possibly goes through servers on American soil, with a copy stored in data centers under American jurisdiction. That means that regardless of any rights or protections offered by your country, you are to American agencies a foreigner, and therefore fair game. It is an influential form of power.

All of which puts a new spin on China’s infamous resistance to letting American internet giants operate unencumbered in its territory. Like American and British concerns about Huawei, China’s problem with Google and Facebook maybe as much about national security as it is about suppressing dissent, or boosting homegrown businesses. Yesterday’s revelations show that it is not just Chinese companies like Huawei that should worry us—it’s our own governments too.