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Is GCHQ the NSA’s ‘perverted little brother’ or worse?

Millions of webcam users have fallen victim to British spies obtaining intimate images but GCHQ’s operations could actually go beyond privacy issues and damage the UK’s economic and technological development – claims Loz Kaye

Much of the media focus on the Edward Snowden revelations has been on the United States National Security Agency. But the United Kingdom’s Government Communication Headquarters has been just as much a major part of the controversial blanket surveillance programmes, putting Britain at odds with its European Union partners.

The latest story has been truly shocking. Millions of Internet users had images of themselves scooped up via webcams under the ‘Optic Nerve’ programme. The comments by GCHQ in one document stating “it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body” show they been getting an eyeful via their optic nerves. It leads to sardonic comments on social media that British spooks are the NSA’s perverted little brother. But this is to underestimate the scope of GCHQ. As Snowden himself put it “the UK has a huge dog in this fight”.

Throughout the mass surveillance scandal the different responses of British and continental politicians has been striking. In Germany, this has been a major issue and Merkel was blunt when news broke about her phone being tapped. She confronted Obama saying: “This is like the Stasi.” The European Parliament has been pushing to get to the bottom of the murky affair and to protect whistleblowers. By comparison, the British Conservatives have dug their heels in protesting against a hearing for Snowden. In the UK, while citizens have been enraged and disturbed, our politicians have been both unwilling and unable to address mass surveillance openly.

To a certain extent, this is because of complacency in British politics and culture. We remain convinced we are the good guys even when our government is violating the privacy of its citizens in the most gross way. In central and eastern Europe, however, the memories of state spying and repression are still all too fresh. You can be sure that Merkel does not make the comparison with the Stasi lightly.

All of this has served to drive a further wedge between Cameron’s Britain and the rest of the EU countries. What is really noticeable about the Snowden files is how much of the activity is under the umbrella of the Anglophone ‘Five Eyes’ cooperation. This agreement between the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand now puts us directly at odds with European-orientated foreign policy and security objectives. It shows that Britain sees its most fundamental relationships as being outside the EU framework. And that we are prepared to act in a way that our supposed EU allies find repugnant in order to maintain those fundamental relationships.

We may not have to wait for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. There is a growing sentiment that we should be ejected before we can do any more damage. British non-governmental organisations like Open Rights Group and Big Brother Watch are attempting to force the issue by taking the UK government to the European Court of Human Rights over PRISM and TEMPORA. But given the Tory-led government’s contempt for things European and little things like human rights, there is little prospect of this making much difference – win or lose – under the current administration.

What might finally concentrate minds is the damage isolating ourselves in an axis of snooping will do to our strategic interests and economy. The UK currently has a key place in the global information infrastructure thanks to the multiple undersea cables from the UK to the US. This is particularly why the news that GCHQ was tapping these fibre optic cables through the TEMPORA surveillance programme caused such alarm. Five Eyes can fix its gaze on the world’s communications due to Britain’s position in the global Internet infrastructure.

No wonder then that Brazil has been looking for a different route. Proposals are underway for a new Brazil to EU undersea cable costing $185m – arriving in Spain – and this has been specifically linked to security concerns. In the UK, we could come to pay a heavy price for GCHQ spying in lost jobs and being sidelined in technological development. If we push ourselves out in to the Atlantic too far, we may well find ourselves cut adrift from everyone.

Loz Kaye is the leader of Pirate Party UK

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