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Security and privacy - Where to draw the line?

(People's Daily Online)

17:29, June 14, 2013

Edited and translated by Liang Jun, People's Daily Online

A massive clandestine US program involving phone and Internet surveillance is currently being exposed in the world's media. The technology companies which have participated in the program reportedly include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

PRISM is the codename of a top secret U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) program which collects and analyzes data from Internet users around the world. Edward Snowden, 29, a former technical contractor and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, was the source who leaked the information to the media.

Undoubtedly, Snowdon's behavior is illegal. But his revelations concerning the program have caused unease among both U.S. politicians and the wider public. Members of Congress have been confronted with the uncomfortable prospect that the collection and analysis of personal information by the intelligence services is running out of control.

However, the current disclosures are likely to be no more than the tip of the iceberg. Even Congress and the judiciary cannot be sure that their activities are not being tracked by an intelligence sector that appears to be exempt from any proper scrutiny.

The public has good reason to feel uncomfortable at the prospect of all their daily movements and contacts being under surveillance. With letters, telephones, smartphones, and the internet all subject to interference, there appear to be few remaining secure channels of communication. Clearly, many legal safeguards have been dismissed by the intelligence agencies as no more than scraps of paper.

It hardly comes as any comfort that the first concern of the Obama administration and the intelligence agencies appears to be not the threat to personal information, but that the leakage of information might damage national security.

Obama has dismissed the criticism of the programs as "hype" and refused to offer any apology. He said: "It's important to recognize that you can't have one hundred percent security, and also then have one hundred percent privacy and zero inconvenience."

But where is the correct balance between privacy and national security? And how can it be guaranteed, when the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies themselves reject the idea of transparency?

U.S. politicians, and in particular current incumbents, are troubled by the prospect of political fallout. It can readily be foreseen that if U.S. voters' worries about their security and privacy reach a critical point, more politicians will begin to challenge PRISM directly – on this occasion their own unease will be matching the concerns of their constituents.

Read the Chinese version: 美国“棱镜门”拷问安全和隐私边界

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