The Difficult Balance of Transparent Surveillance

Posted by Kovey Coles at Jul 10, 2013 05:50 AM |
Is it too much to ask for transparency in data surveillance? On occasion, companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and the other silicon valley giants would say no. When customers join these services, each company provides their own privacy statement which assures customers of the safety and transparency that accompanies their personal data.

This research was undertaken as part of the 'SAFEGUARDS' project that CIS is undertaking with Privacy International and IDRC


Google even publishes annual “Transparency Reports” which detail the data movement behind the scenes. Governments, too, are somewhat open about surveillance methods, for example with the public knowledge of the existence and role of institutions like America’s NSA and India’s CMS. These façades of assurance, however, never satisfy the public enough to protect them from feeling cheated and deceived when information leaks about surveillance practices. And in the face of controversy around surveillance, both service providers and governments scramble to provide explanations for discrepancies between their promises and their practices.

So it seems that transparency might not be too much to ask, but instead is perhaps more complicated of a request than imagined. For some citizens, nothing would be more satisfying than complete transparency on all data collection. For those who recognize surveillance as crucial for national security, however, complete transparency would mean undermining the very efficacy of surveillance practices. And data companies often find themselves caught between these two ends, simultaneously seeking profits by catering to the public, while also trying to abide by political and legal frameworks. Therefore, in the process of modern data surveillance, each attempt at resolution of the transparency issue will become a delicate balance between three actors: the government, the big data companies, and the people. As rightly stated on the Digital Due Process website, rules for surveillance must carefully consider “the individual’s constitutional right to privacy, the government’s need for tools to conduct investigations, and the interest of service providers in clarity and customer trust.”[1]

So we must unpack the idea of transparency.

First, there should be a distinction made between proactive transparency and reactive transparency, or, the announcement of surveillance practices versus the later access to surveillance records. The former is more risky and therefore more difficult to entertain, while the latter may lack any real substance beyond satisfying inquiries. Also consider the discrepancy in motivation for transparency between the actors. For the citizen, is transparency really an end goal, or is it only a stepping stone in the argument for eradication of surveillance practices in the name of rights to privacy? Here, we ascertain the true value of total transparency; will it ever please citizens to learn of a government’s most recent undermining of the private sphere?

Reactive transparency has been achieved only in recent years in India, during a number of well publicized legal cases. In one of the earliest cases of reactive transparency, Reliance Communications made an affidavit in the Supreme Court over the exact number of surveillance directives given by the government. It was released that 151,000 Reliance accounts were monitored for a project between 2006 and 2010, with 3,588 tapped phones just from the Delhi region alone in 2005.[2]

But also there has been controversy over the extent of reactive transparency, because it has been especially problematic to discern the point where transparency once again encroaches on privacy, both for government and the people’s sake. After gathering the data, its release could further jeopardize the citizens and the government. It is important to carefully consider the productive extent of reactive transparency: What will become of the information? Will one publicly reveal how many people were spied on? Who was spied on? What was found when through spying? Citizens must take all of this into consideration when requesting transparency.

Meanwhile, service providers embrace transparency when it can benefit their corporation, or as a recent Facebook statement explained, “we’ve been in discussions with U.S. national security authorities urging them to allow more transparency, so that our users around the world can understand how infrequently we are asked to provide user data on national security grounds.” [a] Many of the service providers mentioned in the recently leaked PRISM report have made well-publicized requests to the U.S. government for more transparency.[3]

Not only have they allegedly written requests to the government to allow them to disclose information, but the companies (including Facebook [a], Apple [b], Microsoft[c], and Google [d]) have all released explanatory statements in the wake of the June 2013 PRISM scandal. Although service providers claim that the request to release data about their cooperation is in the ‘interest of transparency,’ it instead seems that the motivation for this transparency is to ease consumers’ concerns and help the companies save face. The companies (and the government) will admit their participation in surveillance once it has become impossible to deny their association with the programs. This shrewd aspect of transparency can be seen most clearly in statements like those from Microsoft, who included in their statement on June 14th, “We have not received any national security orders of the type that Verizon was reported to have received.” [c] Spontaneous allusions like this are meant to contrast guilt-conscious service providers favorably to telecom service providers such as AT&T and Verizon, who allegedly yielded the most communications data and who as of now have yet to release defensive public statements.

Currently, we find ourselves in a situation where entities admit to their collusion in snooping only once information has leaked, indignation has ignited, and scandal has erupted. A half-hearted proactive transparency leads to an outrage demanding reactive semi-transparency. These weak forms of transparency neither satisfy the public, nor allow governments and service providers to maintain dignity.

But now is also a crucial moment for possible reevaluation and reformation of this system, especially in India. Not only is India enacting its own national security surveillance system, the CMS[4] but the recent NSA and PRISM revelations are still sending shockwaves throughout the world of cyber security and surveillance. Last week, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was sent to the Indian Supreme Court, arguing that nine foreign service providers (Facebook, Hotmail, Yahoo!, Google, Apple, Skype, Paltalk, AOL, YouTube) violated the trust and privacy of their Indian customers through their collusion with the US government’s surveillance programs.[5]

Among other things, the PIL emphatically sought prosecution of the mentioned corporations, demands for the service providers to establish servers in India, and also sought stricter rules to prevent Indian officials from using these foreign services for work involving national security. Ultimately, the PIL was rejected by the Supreme Court; although the PIL stated the grounds of Rule 6 of the Information Technology Rules 2011 for the guidelines in protecting sensitive Indian citizen information, the SC saw the PIL as addressing problems outside of SC jurisdiction, and was quoted as saying “we cannot entertain the petition as an Indian agency is not involved.”[5][6]

The SC considered the PIL only partially, however, as certain significant parts of the petition were indeed within Indian domestic agency, for example the urge to prohibit federal officials from using the private email services such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo. And although the SC is not the correct place to push for new safeguard legislation, the ideas of the PIL are not invalid, as Indian leaders have long searched for ways of ensuring basic Indian privacy laws in the context of international service providers. This is also not a problem distinctive to India. International service providers have entered into agreements regarding the same problems of incorporating international customers’ rights, formal agreements which India could emulate if it wanted to demand greater privacy or transparency.

For example, there is the Safe Harbor Framework, an institution in place to protect and mediate European Union citizens’ privacy rights within the servers of foreign (i.e. American) Internet companies. These regulations were established in 2000, and serve the purpose of adjusting foreign companies’ standards to incorporate E.U. privacy laws. In accordance with the agreement, E.U. data is only allowed to be sent to outside providers who maintain the seven Safe Harbor principles, several of which focus on transparency of data usage.[7] India could enact a system similar to this, and it would likely alleviate some of the concerns raised in the most recent PIL. These frameworks, however, have not proven completely reliable safeguards either, especially when the service providers’ own government uses national security as a means to override the agreement. Although the U.S. government has yet to fully confirm or deny many of the NSA and PRISM allegations in regards to Europe, there is currently strong room to believe that the surveillance practices may have violated the Safe Harbor agreements by delivering sensitive E.U. citizen data to the U.S. government.[8] It is uncertain how these revelations will impact the agreements made between the big Silicon-Valley companies and their E.U. customers.

The recent PIL also strongly suggested establishing domestic data servers to keep Indian citizens’ information within the country and under the direct supervision of Indian entities. It strongly pushes for self-reliance as the best way to ensure both citizen and national security. The PIL assumes that domestic servers will not only offer better information protection, but also create much needed jobs and raise national tax revenue.[5] If allegations about PRISM and the E.U. prove true, then the E.U. may also decide to support establishment of European servers as well.

Several of the ideas outlined in the PIL have merit, but may not be as productive as the requesters assume. It is true that establishing servers and domestic regulators in India may temporarily protect from unwanted foreign, i.e. American, surveillance. But at the same time, this also increases likelihood of India’s own central government taking a stronger surveillance stance, more stringently monitoring their own servers and databases. It has not yet been described how the CMS will be operate its surveillance methods, but moving data to domestic servers may just result in shifting power from NSA to CMS. Rather than more privacy or transparency, the situation could easily become a matter of who citizens prefer spying over them.

Even if one government establishes rules which enforce transparency, this may clash with the laws of the service providers’ domestic government, i.e. confidentiality in surveillance. Considering all of this, rejection of foreign service providers and promotion of domestic self reliance may ultimately prove the most effective alternative for nations which are growing rapidly in both internet presence and internet consciousness. But that does not make this option the easiest. Facing the revelations and disillusionment of domestic (CMS) and international (PRISM) surveillance methods, countries like India are reaching an impeding critical juncture. Now is the most important time to establish new norms, while public sentiment is at its highest and transition is most possible, not only creating new laws which can safeguard privacy, but also strongly considering alternatives to foreign service providers like those outlined in June’s PIL. Privacy International’s guiding principles of communications surveillance also offer useful advice, urging for the establishment of oversight institutions which can access surveillance records and periodically publish aggregate data on surveillance methods.[9] Although the balance between security on the national level and security on the personal level will continue to be problematic for nations in the upcoming years, and even though service providers’ positions on surveillance usually seem contrived, Microsoft Vice President John Frank made a statement which deserves appreciation, rightly saying, “Transparency alone may not be enough to restore public confidence, but it’s a great place to start.”[c]


[1]. http://digitaldueprocess.org/

[2]. http://bit.ly/151Ue1H

[3]. http://bit.ly/12XDb1Z

[4]. http://ti.me/11Xh08V

[5]. Copy of 2013 PIL to Supreme Court, Prof. S.N. Singh [attached]

[6]. http://bit.ly/1aXWdbU

[7]. http://1.usa.gov/qafcXe

[8]. http://bit.ly/114hcCX

[9]. http://bit.ly/156wspI


[a]. Facebook Statement: http://bit.ly/ZQDcn6

[b]. Apple Statement: http://bit.ly/1akaBuN

[c]. Microsoft Statement:http://bit.ly/1bFIt31

[d]. Google Statement: http://bit.ly/16QlaqB

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