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Caribbean: Is Somebody Watching?

The ongoing saga with U.S. Internet surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden has captured the attention of the world – Caribbean bloggers included. There has been a fair amount of discussion about the issue on Facebook: users of the social network have been sharing up-to-the-minute news links and signing the Avaaz.org petition to “Stand with Snowden”.

In two blog posts, one from Trinidad and Tobago and the other from Cuba, there is an interesting juxtaposition between high-tech spying and old-fashioned intelligence, even though they both pit the citizens against the state. ICT Pulse, which prides itself on discussing global technology issues from a Caribbean point of view, opens by saying:

The recent revelations of the breadth and depth of the telecoms surveillance being conducted by the United States has been highlighting the extent to which communication is no longer private.

Unless you have been wholly disconnected from international news over the last two weeks, we have been inundated with reports about the extent of the surveillance and spying being done by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). Although from time to time we here at ICT Pulse have been discussing the fact that Internet privacy is an illusion, and suggesting ways in which to improve your privacy online, these recent revelations indicate a more pervasive (and government-sanctioned) programme exists.

The post then sums up the United States’ approach to telecommunications surveillance, explaining:

Through electronic surveillance projects, most notably one codenamed PRISM, the NSA has been collecting data from…telecoms companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, and from large internet properties, such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, YouTube, Skype and Apple. When news about PRISM was made public, some of companies sought to refute claims that the NSA was collecting the data ‘directly from the servers'. However, subsequent reports have suggested that the US government has indeed been getting access to user content.

To defuse some of the outcry that occurred in the US when the story broke, the government revealed that its surveillance has been geared primarily towards identifying potential threats to America.

With regard to voice calls, the US government indicated that it collects the metadata of those transactions, and did not necessarily listen in on people’s conversations. However, the metadata, while not capturing the actual content of persons’ interactions, can provide enough information to deduce the nature of those conversations.

So what does that mean for people who live in the Caribbean?

Our telephone conversations generally might fall outside of US jurisdiction, and so not be immediately subject to PRISM and other forms of scrutiny. However, in circumstances where Internet Messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol- (VoIP) type services are being used, e.g. Skype, Viber, and iChat, and especially when the servers might be located in the US, those interactions could be subject to US government surveillance.

The blog is careful to issue a warning:

We…ought to bear in mind, that even in the region, law enforcement is increasingly seeking to have access to and to rely on the tapping of phones (fixed and mobile/cellular) in their investigations. In many Caribbean countries, mobile/cellular phone registration is mandatory, which means that, up to a point, the original owner of a device is known. Moreover, from time to time, proposals are mooted to relax device-tapping or call interception procedures – for example so that a government Minister can sanction such activities instead of the courts. Although generally there has been opposition to those proposals, they will continue to rear their head, as law enforcement continues to grapple with crime, and governments place increasing focus on ‘national security'.

With the exception of the European Union, countries worldwide have been relatively silent about the disclosures regarding the depth and breadth of US electronic surveillance. Hence it could cause us to question whether or not, or the extent to which countries, including those in the Caribbean, might have cooperated with the US on such matters.

Tackling what it calls an “over-reliance on US Internet facilities”, the post suggests a possible solution:

We…need to…recognise that our personal and business-related data could also be subject to US scrutiny, should they be stored in the US.

From a sovereignty and national security perspective, a case could be made for individual countries or even the region collectively, to actively develop their own web hosting, server facilities, Internet infrastructure, etc., in order to encourage their citizens to bring their data closer to home.

In Cuba, however, according to Yoani Sanchez, “home” is exactly where the spying originates from:

His own neighbor watches him. No one has confirmed it, he hasn’t read it any report, and he doesn’t have any friends in the police who have warned him. He’s simply not stupid. Whenever he opens the gate to his house, a white head peers out from next door. For every five times that he comes and goes, at least three times he runs into the old man who lives in the next apartment pretending to water the plants in the passage. The pots are overflowing, but the improvised watcher continues to add more and more water. Also he asks questions, a lot of questions, on the most imponderable topics: Um… what you have in that bag, where did you buy it? It’s been some time since you visited your mother-in-law, right? So he has his own private informer, an intelligence cell — of just one member — focused on his existence.

The post continues:

In an unwritten, but very frequent, formula, most of the people involved in the betrayal of other Cubans also exhibit a great frustration in their personal lives. Not that every unhappy person becomes an informant for State Security, but failure is a breeding ground that the recruiters of informers take advantage of. With these individuals they develop shock troops willing to destroy others.

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