Debate on use of intelligence can assuage fears of abuse

Julian Russell says we should challenge data 'customers', not collectors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 1:26am

Most countries believe it is axiomatic that anything which crosses their borders may be examined without any specific suspicion or cause; a statute normally gives this authority. This applies to people, goods, money - and data.

An immigration officer will, to a certain extent, invade a person's privacy when questioning them about their purpose for entering a country. This investigation of innocent people is done without a judge's order, and is generally considered an acceptable invasion of privacy for the protection of society.

Society should be concerned not that surveillance exists, but how their information is used

Physical mail is examined by customs officers. The fact that electronic mail is also examined should therefore not be a surprise.

Most governments probably believe they have the automatic right to examine electronic communications entering their country, and most would do it to some degree. People sending e-mails internationally should expect the data to be scanned multiple times before it reaches the recipient.

Although the electronic communication is being monitored, most of it would rarely be seen by a person; machines would do the surveillance. The volume of communications is so great that sophisticated statistical algorithms are needed to find material relevant to a government's intelligence requirements.

Society should be concerned not that surveillance exists, but how their information is used if something should drop onto an intelligence analyst's desk. The analyst needs to write reports for his "customers" who have previously specified their intelligence requirements. Is the customer a government department interested in monitoring fishing treaties, or is it a political party whose prime aim is to stay in power by suppressing all others who challenge it?

It is important to understand that the information collectors, for example, the National Security Agency, are not the customers.

There are numerous government departments who have requested specific subject-area intelligence from the intelligence services, and they use this intelligence for specific purposes, including armed conflict management.

Many people are rightly afraid that if "the government", as an all encompassing single entity (which it is not), knows their personal opinions and thoughts, then this would be used against them. Perhaps to assuage this fear of abuse of power, the government should specify which of its departments are customers requesting the intelligence services' products, and also pledge that within the government, there are no "customers" who requested information on personal thoughts and beliefs.

Note that the intelligence services themselves have no power to use the information collected, in the sense that they can't arrest anybody and detain them. So society should be challenging the customers, who make decisions on the information.

People are monitored mainly because they are members of a group with a common purpose. So if you believe information you communicate, if intercepted, might be used to thwart the purpose of your group, the simple answer is: do not communicate important things electronically. Drug traffickers have known for years not to discuss their deals on the phone, for example.

And finally, people should take solace in the fact that no matter how pervasive the surveillance becomes, there will always be information that escapes the collectors' net.

Julian Russell works as a risk management consultant for Pacific Risk in Hong Kong