April 19, 2014
Spying debate is pushing british politicans into a cornerWednesday, December 11, 2013
Public interest stands tall despite gov’t pressure
For The Herald
LONDON - It was the story of the summer that became the theme of 2013. Leaks revealed by a contracted security analyst, Edward Snowden, published in The Guardian, indicated the levels to which the US and British governments use information collated from internet service providers.
The story has since expanded exponentially, and further revelations are practically guaranteed; at a House of Commons Select Affairs Committee (HSAC) hearing on December 5, The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said that only one percent of the information retrieved from Snowden has so far been published.
The impact of these revelations has been massive. The suggestion that governments spy on their people is not surprising or new, and neither is the concept that our online activities are monitored. What is surprising is the extent to which this has now been shown to be occurring, and what this says about how governments work in the 21st century.
The debate is twofold: should we expect privacy in the online age, and if we accept that companies store our information to better target their sales, is it so surprising that governments do the same for security reasons?
Although the logic sounds reasonable (and depressing), the idea that Western, liberal, democratic governments use the internet for surveillance technology has been met with a backlash that has continued for six months and shows no sign of abating.
Internet service providers themselves have already begun to demand more explicit definitions of the ability of governments to monitor online activities, as shown by the open letter to President Obama signed by eight tech giants on December 9.
The letter, signed by Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and AOL, includes several demands, regarding transparency, accountability and a limit on government use of online data, among other things.
In the words of the text, “the balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual. We urge the US to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”
The fact that many of these companies are direct and even acrimonious competitors (Microsoft’s recent “Scroogled” campaign comes to mind) is testament to the strength of feeling behind the letter.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO and an individual and businessman not always renowned for respecting privacy, stated with the letter that “there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information.”
This letter was followed by a petition launched on December 10 and undersigned by 562 leading authors worldwide, calling for an ‘international digital bill of rights’ to protect civil rights in the information age.
A key tenet of the petition, signed by Nobel laureates Orhan Pamuk, J.M. Coetzee, Elfriede Jelinek, Günter Grass and Tomas Tranströmer and also including Umberto Eco among the signatories, is “a person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy.”
One conclusion from these actions is that surveillance and government spying have now become accepted realities and social talking points. Would companies really benefit from tighter surveillance regulations? Are governments actually able to implement systems that restrict their own activities online while ensuring the freedom of others?
The practicalities of introducing systemic changes that have a positive impact as apparently suggested or demanded by the letter and petition (and as an extension by society as a whole) have yet to be debated, although surveillance constantly is.
A possible explanation for society’s anger against government online surveillance activities practiced by the US and the UK is the lack of plausible defence offered by the governments themselves. It seems that as yet, governments see no reason to apologise or reform, despite public pressure.
In the UK, the government has taken a heavier handed attitude: from the physical destruction of hard drives at The Guardian to the detention of journalist/courier David Miranda in Heathrow, the British government seems unable to avoid presenting itself as in favour of surveillance.
The aforementioned tactics are underhand, secret activities made public by journalists. Last week’s scrutiny of Rusbridger by HSAC was a public demonstration of the thinking behind those active restrictions on The Guardian’s activities.
The questions faced by Rusbridger veered from the clumsy to the inane (questions regarding a planned GCHQ trip to Disneyland by one Tory MP came from the far left of leftfield), and the newspaper editor was given a platform on which to calmly present his case, which he proceeded to do.
The headline-grabbing moment came when the HSAC chair Keith Vaz asked Rusbridger if he “loved his country”; the editor blinked with surprise, before replying that he and all the other Guardian employees who had worked on the Snowden files were all “patriots.”
The use of the patriotism argument, with its US (and McCarthyism) tinges, is frankly embarrassing and demonstrative of a government that finds itself in the awkward position of having to publicly interrogate a newspaper editor while avoiding the pitfalls of restricting free speech. Indeed, as the Financial Times stated in an article on December 6, the information from Snowden published so far by The Guardian has “passed the public interest test.”
This has not prevented persistent state interference: it was revealed in November that two Conservative MPs, Julian Smith and Stephen Phillips, had written to Rusbridger accusing the paper of damaging national security, while on December 4 it was announced that the Metropolitan Police were investigating whether The Guardian had broken anti-terrorism laws in conjunction with the David Miranda detention in August.
These are the heavy-handed acts of a government that is apparently unsure of where it stands. The Guardian and Rusbridger, through their resilience over the last six months, have ensured that the issue of government surveillance has never strayed far from the headlines, and thus guaranteed a public interest debate that would be nothing less than useful for Britain and global democracy.
A transparent redefinition of the ability that governments have to spy on their citizens is now being vociferously called for, both in the UK and in the world at large. It is a shame that, in the UK, the government’s response thus far has been to clumsily, publicly and unsuccessfully repress those who are bringing the debate into the public domain.