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US and Europe are not functioning democracies with ‘this level of surveillance’

Any society that suffers under mass surveillance cannot be free and any government that imposes such invasion of privacy on its citizens is not a functioning democracy – claims Andy Halsall

It was just six months ago that Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee and National Security Agency contractor turned a spotlight on the murky world of American and allied intelligence service snooping. In June, the world saw the first in a long series of reports published in The Guardian and The Washington Post revealing surveillance programs such as PRISM, XKeyscore and Tempora as well as specifics about how surveillance technology is being deployed against whole populations.

It all started with revelations about the NSA’s daily collection of millions of Verizon customers’ phone records, a major revelation at the time but one that was overshadowed almost immediately by reports about PRISM – a programme that the United States is using to access data held by Google, Facebook and Apple and other technology giants.

Those reports were followed by leaks about ‘boundless informant’ – an NSA tool tracking global surveillance. Even that was just a taste of what was to come. Now, six months on we are still reeling from the scale and the scope of spying on every last one of us and the threat that state run mass surveillance poses. The revelations have not let up. Just in the last month, there have been several major new leaks.

For example, we learned that the British Government Communication Headquarters targets employees of mobile communications companies among others – hoping to gain access to private company networks. The method used is not dissimilar to the phishing scams used by criminals to grab personal data online and includes the use of fake LinkedIn profiles. We now know that the CIA is secretly collecting records about international money transfers, seemingly as part of its counter-terrorism remit.

It also seems that the NSA is snooping on sexual activity online including the porn habits of some internet users. This collection is reportedly part of a plan to damage the reputations of those that the NSA believes are radicalising others. One leaked document identifies six targets in an attempt to give examples of how ‘personal vulnerabilities’ can be identified through surveillance and then exploited.

The Washington Post reported that on top of the collection of phone records, the NSA is gathering vast amounts of location data from mobile phones. A raft of programmes sift through the billions of recorded locations and are used to infer relationships and potential behaviour. It also seems that the analysis of movements is being used to determine whether someone is suspicious and presumably whether they should be subject to even closer monitoring. Alarmingly, this demonstrates the sheer amount of collection being carried out and the breadth of analysis being applied to the gathered data.

As if monitoring mobile phone locations, porn viewing habits and international money transfers were not enough it was also revealed that the NSA spies on video gamers – apparently because terrorists and criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot their activities and attacks in the real world. All of these disclosures started a discussion that most governments, whether involved in spying or subject to it, would likely have preferred to avoid; and the discussion that was started in June has not ceased. In fact, we have learned more. The debate about surveillance in the US and elsewhere has grown, even in the face of attempts to shut it down.

When Sir John Sawers – the head of the UK Secret Intelligence Service – took the line that al-Qaida “would be rubbing their hands with glee” because of the leaks, he was rightly ridiculed. At the same time, attempts to paint The Guardian as irresponsible enemies of the state or enablers of terrorism has been met with public derision. Of course, as the discussion has grown so has opposition to mass surveillance and the information now in the public domain is impossible to suppress.

Most importantly there have been repercussions for the US and its allies. Not only have European nations summoned American ambassadors to account for the activities of the NSA – and Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Australia after a recent leak – but the European Parliament and even the United Nations have been forced to at least appear to take action.

Essentially, programmes that were seen by the US and others as being goldmines of information without any downside have become a liability for governments and the technology companies alike. This change has come about because of public opposition and pressure because of the damage done to national reputations and now because it seems to be having an impact on business.

There have been rumbles in business circles for months about the negative impact of spying on US based and owned companies providing information technology and telecommunications services, and hardware. In Europe, companies are fighting to show that they can provide alternative services with an edge that their US counterparts cannot match – that they are not subject to draconian and invasive US security and counter-terrorism laws.

It may be that the strongest opposition to surveillance and unwarranted spying will come from exactly those companies who have helped to make it so easy. This week Google, Apple, Facebook, AOL, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn and Yahoo collectively wrote to the US President Barack Obama and Congress of the United States urging America to take the lead and bring about reforms to ensure that government surveillance efforts are “clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight”.

So as 2013 comes to a close, we are all better informed about what our connected life means in terms of spying and our privacy. For those of us that are involved in advocacy and opposition to mass surveillance, the amount of effort required and the sheer scale of the problem have never been clearer. And yet we have to remember that the millions of column inches, hours of radio and television reporting stems from only a fraction of Snowden’s vast haul of secrets.

For 2014 will be a very interesting year, it is the point at which we have to act – to make it a turning point in the attitudes of governments toward the privacy of the citizens they claim to serve. After all, an individual subject to perpetual surveillance is not free. Any society that suffers under mass surveillance cannot be free and any government that imposes this invasion of privacy on its citizens is not a functioning democracy.

Andy Halsall is campaigns manager at the United Kingdom Pirate Party

  1. I just read a comment that sums this up perfectly: “Welcome to the end of democracy, brought to you by people who are stupid enough to say ‘well I’m not doing anything wrong so I don’t mind if they spy on me’.” We are the generation that will see the changes of technology and suffer the reduction of our freedoms.

    Comment by Dix on December 11, 2013 at 6:44 pm
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