In 2013, the world began to realize that the ability of governments to spy on their own citizens’ phone calls and e-mails is almost unlimited, thanks to new technologies. In 2013, the world also started thinking about putting new legal limits on potentially limitless spying. Earlier this month, a group appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama made a substantial contribution toward sorting out some of the issues that have come to light since Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the vast operation of data-gathering at the National Security Agency.
One of the prime targets of the new spycraft is what is known as metadata. Metadata are the electronic equivalent of information on the outside of a letter’s envelope. It sounds innocuous, but gather up metadata on billions of e-mails, as many world intelligence agencies can, and the vast numbers of people affected and communications collected mean that the doings of almost everybody can to some degree become known to government officials. It’s what the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology calls “mass, undigested, non-public, personal information about individuals.”
One of the fresher suggestions from the panel is that much of this “bulk telephone metadata that has been indiscriminately vacuumed up by surveillance techniques” should be moved off U.S. intelligence agencies’ servers and stored “either by private providers or a private third party.”
Access to it would be granted only after an application to a court – in the U.S, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court would only give government bodies access to information when there are reasonable grounds to believe that it is relevant to an investigation into terrorism or other clandestine activities.
The group also sets out criteria for possible surveillance of foreign leaders. Is there, for example, reason to believe that an otherwise friendly foreign leader is “being duplicitous with senior U.S. officials?” And what harm might result if the foreign leader became aware of being the object of surveillance – the revelation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had her phone calls intercepted by the U.S. being the most conspicuous example? Spying on your friends tends to leave them feeling angry and betrayed when they find out – just like spying on your own citizens.
If 2013 was the year when a vast and unexpected machinery of snooping came to light, 2014 should be the year when new fences are built around the intelligence agencies. To borrow from something Pierre Trudeau said a generation ago, the state has no business in the laptops of the nation.