Following the Edward Snowden affair and the revelations of long-term surveillance of private communications by the US’ National Security Agency (NSA), many governments and several corporations have come together to expose a raft of telecommunications and Internet snooping measures employed by governments.
The US government was forced to make assurances that it would improve the transparency of its surveillance programs. Nevertheless, on Dec. 9, chief executives and representatives of several major US Internet companies — including Facebook, Google, AOL, Microsoft and Twitter — posted a joint open letter in which they voiced their reservations about the US’ surveillance programs to US President Barack Obama and members of the US Congress on a new Web site, reformgovernmentsurveillance.com.
In the letter they outlined their basic stance on the issue, advocating that the governments implicated should implement large-scale reforms of their surveillance policies. It will be interesting to observe how this fledgling movement develops.
Regardless of whether the US government’s assurances are to be believed, and irrespective of whether the companies’ action was born out of their values and beliefs or based on their long-term business interests, at the very least, the first step toward reform has been taken.
Looking at Taiwan in the wake of the scandal of long-term wiretapping that first broke with September’s political turmoil, the role of companies, the media and the government, and the media’s record of reporting on long-term mass surveillances, are subjects with a lot of room for reflection.
Since the Communication Security and Surveillance Act (通訊保障及監察法) was enacted in 1999, at no point has it empowered the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau or the National Police Agency’s communications surveillance centers to operate in the way they have been doing.
If these departments are to conduct monitoring or surveillance of telecommunications, there are legal and constitutional limits and regulations governing how they should do so. Even if the organic laws governing the operation of the departments have subsequently upgraded the status of their respective surveillance centers, these centers can hardly be equated with the — admittedly ambiguous — term “structural organs” that was added to the surveillance act when it was amended in 2007.
Therefore, if legislators take their responsibility to amending laws seriously and in good faith, they need to be more aware of how these surveillance centers gain access to telecommunications companies’ lines and explore how they liaise with enterprises on a day-to-day basis. For example, has it already got to the stage where the surveillance centers have, to all intents and purposes, carte blanche access to any kind of telecommunications or personal information, and where they can get around having to apply for court orders to carry out surveillance, or otherwise neglect to follow the proper steps when conducting an investigation?
In terms of the basic technological structure of telecommunications and the Internet, companies are essentially the guardians of citizens’ constitutional right to privacy in their communications. The issuing of court orders for wiretapping and the requirement of filing requests for telecommunications records are meant to prevent abuses of the system. However, while the surveillance act and its enforcement rules seem, on the surface, to be moderate and reasonable, closer examination reveals it to be a pernicious piece of legislation that hijacks the whole framework set up to provide guarantees of communication privacy.