Revelations by former US National Security Agency (NSA) employee Edward Snowden about the NSA’s clandestine surveillance have stirred up heated discussion in the US. The government in Washington is now reviewing the program.
Interestingly, US liberals have not subjected the government to heavy criticism over the affair. This is partly because they want to shield US President Barack Obama’s shortcomings and also because, while Snowden has caused the US a great deal of embarrassment, he has not said anything new. Meanwhile, the conservative camp is divided over Snowden’s revelations, wavering between the issues of national security and individual privacy.
What Snowden’s actions highlight are the loopholes in US government departments. Considering his academic and work background, it is hard to imagine how Snowden was assigned information with national security implications and how he could download the data so easily. That is what mainstream opinion in the US is really concerned about.
Reactions to the Snowden affair in Taiwan are quite odd. It is fair enough if critics pillory the US government from an idealist standpoint for using technology to delve into the lives of its citizens. However, some people have been aligning themselves with China’s viewpoint by mocking the US, while ignoring China’s construction of a new iron curtain to control the Internet and spy on dissidents. Such an attitude is confused in the extreme.
Before people criticize the NSA’s program based on surface values, they should be asking what attitude the Taiwanese government has toward network security and online freedom.
Netizens recently got upset over a government proposal to make local Internet service providers block overseas Web sites infringing copyrights. These planned amendments to the Radio and Television Act (廣播電視法) would immediately reveal sensitive data about Taiwan’s telecommunications infrastructure, throwing the door to the nation’s network security wide open. Not surprisingly, officials think it is a bad idea.
At the same time, the law in its proposed new form would impact on freedom of speech, since it would authorize government departments to obtain user information from service providers without recourse to legal procedures. Bureaucrats could make their own subjective judgements on whether online content was harmful to society and then remove or block it accordingly. That power, and the threat posed to Internet users, is many times greater than that of the NSA, which is strictly limited to combating terrorism. It amounts to a revival of the Taiwan Garrison Command that operated during the Martial Law era. How is this any different from the control that China’s public security apparatus wields over the Internet?
Taiwan has a Personal Information Protection Act (個人資料保護法) whose protections go too far, perhaps, with a bunch of untrustworthy people handling sensitive information. Part of the problem is it is out of the hands of commercial providers. Moreover, a crowd of conceited and frivolous personnel are endowed with the right to spy on, record and track anybody, from the president down to ordinary citizens, and over whom the public has no control.
Should Taiwanese rejoice that everyone is treated equally in the fight against crime, or should they worry that one day Taiwan will have its own Snowden who, tormented by the imbalance between his own powers and duties, runs off clutching a record of the president’s communications and connections, accusing Taiwan of being a police state?
Li Chung-chih is a professor at Illinois State University’s School of Information Technology.
Translated by Julian Clegg