Going back to the beginning
Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), shocked the world in 2013 by exposing U.S. surveillance on worldwide communications networks by American intelligence agencies like the National Security Administration (NSA). It was controversial because the personal information collected was extensive and indiscriminate. And because the United States did not deny the allegation, his disclosure was essentially confirmed. U.S. intelligence agencies were listening to the cell phone conversations of leaders of friendly countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As the controversy grew, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a plan to reduce the scope of information collected by the NSA. Related bills were proposed in Congress, and companies reinforced their security systems. Google and Apple encrypted their mobile operating systems, as FBI director James Comey openly complained that data encryption would compromise the investigation.
Debates on the authority and limits of state power and privacy protection were especially meaningful then. Snowden’s exposure may have put the U.S. government in an awkward situation, but by starting the debate, it gave society a chance to become healthier. But that’s all ended now.
First of all, the bill to limit the NSA’s information collection was halted in Congress. It was not processed at the end of last year, as the Senate did not form quorum, and it is not likely to be discussed again. The conservative Republicans took both the Senate and the House in the midterm election.
Yet, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, strengthening information surveillance is gaining support again. After a man was caught for plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner said, “The first thing that strikes me is that we would’ve never known about this had it not been for the FISA program and our ability to collect information on people who pose an imminent threat.”
Meanwhile, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which some civil groups call “Big Brother,” is gaining momentum. When a cyberattack by a foreign hacker is suspected, the government and private companies share personal information freely, according to this proposed act.
But while it was introduced in 2013, it didn’t pass Congress in the aftermath of Snowden’s disclosure. The mood changed, however, after the hacking on Sony Pictures. President Obama - who said he would veto it two years ago - changed his position. Internet companies that were pitted against the government over the Snowden affair, are cooperating with the government now after the incident.
The nearly two-year debate was to determine the limits of information collection and how to prevent terrorist attacks while protecting privacy. If the United States finds a tipping point between two values, it could have been the golden standard for countries around the world. But it is regrettable that everything is going back to the beginning amid new threats of terrorism. It is still valid that the government can become a Big Brother and we cannot completely trust the morality of intelligence agencies.
The author is the Washington correspondent
for the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 20, Page 30
by LEE SANG-BOK