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A Human Rights Convention on Privacy!

2014 Apr 09

 By  Chamara Sumanapala

We have to make sure that democracy, human rights and privacy are secured in cyber space We have to make sure that democracy, human rights and privacy are secured in cyber space

During the last few months, especially after the Edward Snowden revelations, privacy has become a hot topic. The Nation spoke to Minister of Science Technology and Atomic Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka on this issue. He stressed the necessity of a Human Rights Convention on privacy and also mentioned the importance of a transparent mechanism of regulation of the internet. Excerpts:

Q: Mr. Minister, what is the importance of this idea of a new Human Rights Convention? How can it be described?
During the last few years, information technology has expanded in leaps and bounds. Older concepts have been replaced by totally new phenomena. The communication and data flows have now combined to create a new hyper reality.We cannot detach ourselves from this reality. There are a lot of interactions that take place in this online virtual world. New concepts like cloud markets are nothing new today. The latest developments speak of cloud factories and other phenomena that would not have been imaginable a few years ago.

Today, internet is not something used only to exchange emails. It is used for a number of other purposes. Today e-commerce has become so common. Stocks are purchased through the internet. Many transactions are taking place on the internet.However, if someone is watching all these activities from somewhere above, it becomes a serious concern. If there is someone, who knows about all the transactions taking place, all trade secrets and all private matters, companies lose their identities. People will lose their identities and even countries will lose their identities.

The situation will be even more dangerous when it comes to warfare. As we know, many systems are now computerized. In a war, there are war materials and other infrastructure that are important. For an example, power stations have a lot of computerized systems. If some country can disable such systems of a rival country they can have an undue advantage. Furthermore, even many weapons systems, including nuclear weapons are launched by computerized systems. So, imagine the mayhem and confusion that can occur if some other country can take control of these systems.Therefore, this eavesdropping can have grave implications in military, energy security and economical aspects.

We require a new Magna Carta, a new Convention on privacy. The current level of eavesdropping can give the USA and some of their companies an undue advantage over the countries and companies of other countries. They can block credit cards, freeze funds and do whatever they want. This is not fair under any circumstances. We can’t be led like the sheep while they look down from above as if they are Almighty God! The Americans are blaming Wikileaks and other sites of breaching security codes. Actually, America benefitted from what Wikileaks did initially. It was mostly used against certain African leaders. But since Wikileaks started attacking USA, it became Washington’s villain. If what Assange, Manning, Edward Snowden and The Guardian journalists did was wrong, what the USA is doing is hundred times worse. What they did was some sort of a guerrilla war in this larger arena of Electronic Warfare. They do not have funds and institutions like the big players. They are just like guerrillas, but engaged in a different type of warfare.

Q: We know that the United States is not the only country that is involved in spying and other activities. We have heard about the “Five Eyes” network. We have heard about European countries who have involved in these activities in collusion with the USA. Why do you put the blame on USA alone?
No, actually USA is not the only guilty party. There are many other cases. There were many revelations during the past few months. For instance, it was revealed that USA had spied on Indonesian leaders through Australia. We do not know what is happening here. We cannot really speculate. Spying is not done by only the USA and its allies. Russia is doing it. There was an instance where a phone conversation involving an Assistant Secretary of State was tapped. An alleged conversation on Syria was taped in Turkey. Such things can be done by many parties, but USA is way ahead in it.
The technological advance the USA has reached in this electronic warfare is phenomenal. Other countries are comparatively far behind. We really do not have an idea as to what the capabilities of the US are. For example, people in the outside world got to know about the internet only in the late 1980s. But the US military had been using a similar technology from the 1960s for military purposes. So, we cannot really tell what they can be capable by now.
This is why we need a new convention on internet privacy. We have to make sure that democracy, human rights and privacy are secured in cyber space.

Q: So, what about the issue of regulation of internet?
Yes. It is like this. We have some sort of a mechanism to regulate the print media or even television and radio. People cannot put anything they want. However, internet is a different matter. There are enough websites which sometimes publish utter lies and abusive content. It is really hard to do anything to stop it. With this packet switching technology that is used, you cannot really block a site. Therefore people with malicious intent can put up any fabricated story on someone they do not like, and they will not get penalized as well.Also in some instances, sensitive data can be released through the internet. We saw what happened recently when bank details in Korea were released. It caused people’s confidence to go down.

Today, we do not have a nuclear family. We have an atomic family and social media help us connect with these atomized units. Furthermore, humans are societal creatures. Even someone who seems to be alone needs companionship. Today people find companionship through social media, on internet.
The danger is, a small number of people can penetrate a computerized system and create many unnecessary difficulties and they can even wreak the whole system. This can cause utter chaos to people and institutions as well.

Social media can be a problem if not used properly, especially on children. According to Buddhism, it is the nama gothra that become vignaana. If one encounters something from an early age, it becomes a part of life. There are cases where human children raised among animals have become just like the animals. There are cases of children who are just like wolves, dogs and so on. There is the case of the Monkey Man in Kenya. Just like that, if our children are exposed to harmful things in the internet from a young age, it can affect the habits of people.

Once a bad tendency becomes a habit, it becomes a vicious cycle which we cannot break easily. Law and technology can give some answers to these problems but they are not complete answers. For example, China and Iran have taken the step of the making their own clouds in cyber space. However, the real answer lies in the society.

Parents should be aware of the developments on cyber technology. Also, IT literacy is a must in a new generation and the older generation should also be aware of it. Banning internet sites is not the answer. Proper knowledge should be given to the children of the country so that they know how to use the internet properly.The virtual world is starting to rule the real world. When that happens there should be regulations, conventions and technological answers to problems that can arise from it. Otherwise it can easily go out of control. However, regulations should not be political tools. They should have a transparent mechanism.

Q: Educating the people must be the job of the government, isn’t it?
Basically yes. Today the government is doing a lot of positive work on increasing the infrastructure capabilities. For example, there were 1000 new laboratories built in schools around the island. However, less attention is given to the improvement of the human resources, basically the teachers. For example, there is a shortage of teachers for Advanced Level mathematics subject.Building laboratories is a good thing. But in this information age, new concepts like cloud laboratories are coming up. Therefore you won’t need big infrastructure projects in the future.

Sri Lanka has a huge potential for innovation economy. Today our ICT (Information and Communication Technology) industry reaches to US $ 600 million. It can reach even to billions. We do not need mammoth infrastructure to do it. Only thing is, we have to create the awareness and the attitude. Blocking internet is no solution, but managing, regulating and increasing the literacy is the key.In Sri Lanka we have about 5 million people using internet. That is 25 percent of the total population. If we considered the age group 15 to 55 years, the percentage is much higher. But, we have to create awareness as to how best to use internet and also protect our users.

Q: Has there been any discourse on the proposal of a convention on privacy before?
Yes, there have been. This is not a novel idea. However, it has always been put down by the West. So, there has not been adequate exposure to this idea. But it has been there.A convention does not come out of thin air. They are born out of needs and problems. The world was ravaged by two World Wars and afterwards, United Nations was created to stop it from recurring. The Vienna Protocols, the Kyoto Protocol, all were agreed after people faced problems that needed international level solutions. There are a number of Geneva Conventions on warfare, which originated because people understood the need for answers to the brutality of war. The issue of privacy has also been a concern for some time.

Q: Will there be support from powerful nations to such an idea? How do we get the support of the people for such a convention?
It will not happen overnight. It did not happen in any instance. In the 1970s, the smell of diesel and the black smoke were considered to be signs of development. However, slowly, people realized the issues of climate change. It took about 20 years for the Kyoto Protocol to materialize. It will be the same here. It will not appear overnight. However, the more the people realize the threat to their privacy, the more they will push for an international convention.
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