The National Security Bureau submitted a draft information surveillance and control act to the Executive Yuan for review this week. The bureau said the proposal was aimed at boosting its ability to combat foreign espionage and cyberattacks, and Taiwanese need not worry because it would protect them.
The problem is the more the bureau tried to defend itself from critics, the worse it sounded. First, it said that if its proposal became law, it would establish an “information surveillance and control” committee to oversee its information-gathering efforts.
Second, it said the main focus of the draft was foreign nationals living in Taiwan who do not have a registered residence, because the Communication Security and Surveillance Act (通訊保障及監察法) is applicable to foreigners living here who have a registered residence. Third, it said the proposal would not expand its current powers.
Fourth, the bureau said that it was unfair to compare the proposal with the activities of the US’ National Security Agency (NSA), which have come under scrutiny in the wake of revelations about the extent of its telephone and Internet monitoring. The bureau said it had submitted its draft act to the Executive Yuan at the start of the year, well before recent NSA leaks.
However, Taiwanese know better than most people about the dangers of security agency overreach when it comes to close surveillance, because of the White Terror years and the decades under martial law imposed by the former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime.
The kind of thuggish monitoring that Chinese dissidents and activists continue to endure in China was once commonplace in Taiwan, conducted by the Taiwan Garrison Command, which was only disbanded in 1992, five years after martial law was lifted.
If the proposed legislation would not expand the security bureau’s authority, then why is it necessary?
The idea of an overview committee is not reassuring without more information about its membership and powers. Given the political rift in this nation between the pan-blue camp and the pan-green camp, committees of all sorts become a political battleground, with each camp trying to ensure that it has more members than the other even if the committee is supposed to be “independent” — just look at the National Communications Commission.
Does the bureau envision the committee being more along the lines of the US’ Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court? That could be problematic, given reports over the past week that the court basically rubberstamped every surveillance request it received.
For the bureau to say its proposal should not be compared to the NSA because it was drafted long before those leaks completely misses the point. Given that the US is viewed as an established democracy, with a Bill of Rights and solid legal protection for those rights, many lawmakers and citizens have been appalled to find out how little those protections seem to matter when “national security” is invoked. People living in younger democracies must be even more vigilant in defending their rights and demanding accountability from their government and its agencies.
There has yet to be convincing evidence from US intelligence that huge data-mining conducted under the PRISM clandestine surveillance program and others is actually helping to thwart attacks. It did not help prevent the Boston Marathon bombings.