JASTA: We are all compromised, states and individuals

Hassan Abou Taleb
Thursday 20 Oct 2016

With cyberwar and online privacy invasion becoming the norm, it's time for a global dialogue to redefine 'sovereignty'

A key critique of JASTA is that it gives US domestic law precedence over the international agreements that regulate diplomatic relations, and overrides the sovereign rights and immunity of a country that protect it from being prosecuted.

This criticism assumes that the sovereignty of all countries around the globe is generally respected, safe from legal or illegal breaches, the privacy of their citizens respected as long as they do not participate in illegal activities.

It is an assumption that is incorrect in light of contemporary realities, especially in the age of the internet.

With this in mind, we must launch a global debate to redefine sovereignty, taking into account the advances in technology that surround us, upon which we have come to depend. Unfortunately, no one can manage this now, whether within or outside the United Nations.

It is clear that all IT-advanced countries—such as the US, Russia, China, Britain, India, Israel and to some extent Iran—would resist this kind of dialogue because it could conclude with new criteria restricting the ability of these countries to penetrate other, less IT-developed states.

What is certain here, is that even though these states are advanced in IT, they too can be breached. When presidential candidate Hilary Clinton was asked in the first debate with rival Donald Trump about the capabilities of the US in IT security and cyberwar, she said it is a great challenge for the US.

Clinton said those who hack US government sites, companies and banks to retrieve information for profit or harm the interests of the US must know that the US’s capabilities on this matter are better and greater. But she did not tell us what these better and greater capabilities can do to protect the US state against cyber attacks.

Trump also did not clarify his vision of how to protect the US—its sovereignty over its information and citizens’ data.

In response to another question about confronting IS, Clinton said she had a plan that includes heavy military bombardment and eliminating IS capabilities online. The answer is a clear indication of her intention to ask US internet companies to become part of this confrontation in the interest of national security—namely that these companies would work to control the actions of anyone considered to be an enemy of the US.

What is interesting here, is that companies which began in the US but became global players, such as Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, could become part of a strategy to violate the sovereignty of all governments and privacy of individuals on behalf of the US government. In fact, these companies breach the privacy of individuals around the globe every day, with users' consent. They provide free internet surfing and social media, but ask—in fact require—each user to allow their personal data to be used for company purposes to improve free services such as internet surfing, email or iCloud. And of course, for use in advertising—a key source of income for these companies, according to their public justifications. If the user declines, they cannot use the site or download the app.
This makes such companies more influential and powerful than any international agreements or national constitutions regulating and protecting the privacy of individuals; they can easily challenge governments.

When the Indian government asked Facebook, which bought WhatsApp, to stop gathering and publishing private data on individuals using the app, Facebook administrators simply refused and viewed the request as interference in their operations. Many people don’t really care about this, believing their private data is not worth much if it is made public or reused by known or unknown entities inside or outside their country.

The vast majority of WhatsApp and Facebook users around the world have no idea how their personal information, which may contain work secrets whether they are in government or not, is being used.

What happens to individuals also happens to governments, armies and companies, but in a more organised manner. The armies and intelligence agencies of major powers include special units for information warfare, focusing on two key elements.

First, defense to protect the state’s information networks from foreign hacking; second, offense to hack the information networks of other countries. Hacking can be handled by an official institution or by pirates hired for the job.

The result, simply, is that seemingly peaceful relations between countries do not mean there are no sovereignty violations or calculated pressure in areas of informatics. In fact, these breaches often happen without our awareness; When we are informed, the published versions are full of holes and often suspect.

The writer is a political commentator.




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