When Edward Snowden decided to disclose thousands of classified NSA documents to the public in June of 2013, people around the world became more and more aware that ‘Big Brother’ really was watching our every move. Each and every one of our phone conversations, email messages, and even physical movements could be under scrutiny. But how can we avoid being spied on when it’s anonymous, invisible forces that are watching us?
Snowden placed himself in an extremely perilous situation by leaking classified documents – but he knew that what he was doing was for the greater good in a world where information technology means that the boundaries between public and private life are constantly wavering. He explained, ‘I blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance practices [. . .] because I believe that mass surveillance of innocents – the construction of enormous, state-run surveillance time machines that can turn back the clock on the most intimate details of our lives – is a threat to all people, everywhere, no matter who runs them.’
Nation states seem to be keeping tabs on everybody these days. Today, when terrorism seems to be a permanent threat, this is usually excused by the promise of greater national security. The question is; how willing are citizens to compromise their privacy for that safety? Worryingly, nobody ever cared to ask for public (or voter) opinion on the subject.
This list reveals the world’s most spied-on societies as calculated by Privacy International in their report entitled National Privacy Ranking 2007 – Leading Surveillance Societies Around the World. Privacy International is a UK-based charity that fights for privacy rights around the world, investigating the companies that allow secret government surveillance beyond what’s authorised by law. Privacy International endeavours to guarantee the human right to privacy by exposing companies, technologies and laws that allow governments to get a little too close to their citizens for comfort. Unfortunately, a number of countries across the world fail to respect this basic human right.
The worst offenders are the following five nations, scattered around the globe and the products of varying political regimes. The top five are closely followed by Thailand, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom, which don’t make this list but are also classified as endemic surveillance societies. Next time you reach for your keyboard, you mobile phone, or even when you take a step outside, beware that someone – somewhere – might just be watching your every move.
Taiwan’s number one surveillance problem is illegal wiretapping. The government has been indulging in the practice for a long time, clashing seriously with human privacy rights. For example, in 2006, over 25, 000 wiretappings were authorised. Despite the approval of a Communication Protection and Surveillance Act to impose stricter guidelines on wiretaps, recent government scandals have demonstrated that the practice is still ongoing.
Indeed according to the United States State Department, the Taiwan Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the police have been using wiretapping as an investigative tool. It also claimed that the National Security Bureau (NSB) regularly monitors politicians’ phone conversations. This charge has been denied. However, last September a political furore was sparked by wiretaps against the speaker of the national legislature and other leading lawmakers. As a result, in March of this year, the Taiwanese government has taken a small but important step to curb such invasive government surveillance of citizens and politicians by revising the Communication Security and Surveillance Act and the criminal code. It remains to be seen whether this revised strategy has been enforced in earnest.
In Singapore, law enforcement authorities have access to extensive networks which allow them to gather reams of information and conduct extensive surveillance. They also have sophisticated systems enabling them to monitor telephone and other private conversations – for which court warrants are not required. The government is authorised to monitor internet use by law. It’s believed that authorities routinely monitor phone conversations and internet use, and even monitor politicians of opposition parties, as well as government critics. To be granted an internet account in Singapore, each person has to provide a national ID card. ISPs are reported to (illegally) provide information on users to government officials regularly. In 1996, for example, a man was fined $43,000 for downloading adult material from the Internet. This was the first official enforcement of Singapore’s internet regulation and was ironically followed by an SBA announcement that it does not monitor people’s internet activity.
Singapore’s government regularly breaches the boundary between public and private life. They enforce ethnic ratios for publicly subsidized housing, despite the fact that the majority of citizens live in and own their own houses. The number of CCTV cameras in the country is ever increasing. Since the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London, authorities have begun testing CCTV on buses, trains and public areas. These cameras are, however, generally well received by the public who feel that their safety has been improved by the ‘watchful’ eye of the camera.
The Kremlin has transformed Russia into a surveillance state over the past two years – to the point that the current level of surveillance would have been the envy of the Soviet KGB. Currently, seven Russian investigative and security agencies have the legal right to intercept emails and phonecalls. In Russia, the FSB (Federal Security Service) officers must obtain a court order to be able to eavesdrop – but once they have it, they are able to use it without justification on anyone other than their FSB superiors. Therefore, they can request information from operators without showing a warrant.
With control centers set up to directly connect with operators’ computer servers, FSB agents can access untold volumes of information in the blink of an eye – such centres exist all across the country. The system has existed since the Soviet era and has been undergoing constant improvement ever since. Although Putin has pointed out that, ‘we have neither the technical means nor the money as the United States has’ to pour into surveillance operations, the extent of the surveillance system in Russia and the liberties that authorities are able to take present a serious threat to the right to privacy.
China is well known as a country that keeps a close eye on its citizens. The Chinese government is relentlessly determined to monitor the media and the internet for information that might endanger national security or subvert government authority. Since 1999, the State Information Security Appraisal and Identification Management Committee has been in place, with the tasks of protecting government and commercial confidential files on the internet, identifying all net users, and defining their rights and responsibilities.
Internet filters are in place and the government goes so far as to monitor discussion forums. The system is incredibly efficient: controversial statements are usually removed the same day as they’re posted. The repercussions for posting subversive comments can be extreme: Back in 2009, four student activists caught criticising the government online were sentenced to up to 10 years of imprisonment. However, we might question how sustainable such controls of the internet will be in China as people are becoming more and more successful at circumventing digital censorship programs to access foreign news sources.
The Malaysian government radically fails to recognise privacy rights. Indeed, the country’s 1956 Constitution does not even include a clause protecting Malaysians’ right to privacy. The lack of a data protection law is a particular threat to citizens in an age of technological prosperity – since 1998, a data protection bill has been ‘in the works’ but has never been released. Moreover, the privacy of communications law is routinely abused – the power of the government is strong enough to search and seize any and all communications. For example, computer users can be forced to reveal their encryption keys.
Most notable of the privacy breaches is the Malaysian expansive ID card system, called the MYKad. It facilitates activities such as driving, health care and cash systems, but is also used in the private sector and is required when making just about every kind of transaction – for example, in Cybercafes. Since 2008, the Malaysian government has also been trying to implement a DNA Identification Bill, requiring that DNA information be gathered from any person suspected or convicted of a crime, found to be drug users. To make matters worse, the government denies the problem. In response to Privacy International ranking Malaysia as one of the biggest privacy infringers in the world, the government simply argued that they deemed the current laws sufficient to protect their citizens.