Doomsday, discussions, resolutions and porn: surveillance-related developments this week

“It makes it very difficult for someone like me to go out, as I do speak to people in authoritarian countries, and say: ‘You shouldn’t be spying on activists, you shouldn’t be censoring the internet’, when we [in the US] are complicit in these acts of extraordinary intrusion into people’s personal lives.”                                                                                                                       Jimmy Wales

 

Okay, while I’ve been away, a couple of things have happened. Obviously.

It is not, after all, as if the world would stop turning simply because I am not there to observe it doing so.

So, let’s see then, if I can catch up and summarize recent developments for you.

 

The “hero/traitor”-discussion continues – which round is it?

The above quote is from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who recently called Edward Snowden “a hero”, saying: “It’s difficult to have a judgment in such a short period of time on a person I don’t know, and where we don’t know what might appear in the future.

“But, given everything that I know today, he is a hero… he has never leaked anything that would put any particular agents at risk, and so forth. He has exposed what I believe to be criminal wrongdoing, lying to Congress and certainly […] an affront to the fourth amendment. I think that history will judge him very favourably.”

Mr Wales is right, of course, that it is difficult to have a judgement on a person in a relatively short period of time.

Personally, I still have the same problems with the “hero/traitor”-rhetoric that I expressed in previous posts and I do catch myself thinking every now and again that considering how other people that were hailed as “heroes” later fell from grace, you really cannot possibly know.

But then, it is also true that, as far as we know, Edward Snowden has exposed violations of people’s rights and possibly the US constitution (not to mention violations of international law) that we have a right to know about – and that he did it at great personal cost.

What he hasn’t done, as far as we know, is expose agents – in the week of the news about a possible “doomsday cache” (which I will get to later), I thought I’d mention that again.

That said, the news of the week:

 

Germany has got a new government

Yes, that’s right. Just as I was about to board my plane out of that particular country, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and Peer Steinbrück’s Social Democrats (SPD) were about to sign their coalition treaty. I am unsurprised and underwhelmed.

It is occurring to me only as I write this that during the pre-election TV debate (#tvduell – I commented on this here) Mr Steinbrück said a so-called “grand coalition” wasn’t an option for him.

I wonder what the consequence of that will be now. Most likely, there won’t be any.

The consequence for recent demands by a number of other Germans that the government should grant asylum to Edward Snowden on the other hand… now that’s an entirely different and even sadder story.

Given that the two parties with the greatest number of votes in the election have now formed a coalition government (which is big, if perhaps not exactly “grand”), my best guess is that the rather insubstantial opposition – which consists of those parties loudly calling for Mr Snowden to be given asylum – will be able to do little in that, or any other, regard.

It seems that Mr Snowden’s fate, just as much as the fate of German user data, is now in the hands of a government which has so far mostly failed to impress with its reaction to the NSA revelations.

Would that I had a TARDIS and a Doctor: we would then be able to travel to Russia undetected and take Mr Snowden on a journey through time and space with the world’s governments none the wiser. Yes, I have been exposed to too much Whovianism recently, I admit it.

However, at the moment, any scenario involving whichever sort of time machine (make it a DeLorean if you prefer) is probably more likely than Germany hastening to Mr Snowden’s aid, demands by a majority of Germans notwithstanding.

Similarly, in the US a campaign may have seen to it that buses with Edward Snowden’s face and a massive “Thank You!” on them are now cruising the streets of Washington but most likely that will just make officials stick their fingers into their ears and go “la la”.

So, not exactly news there. The situation is as hopeful or –less as it used to be, new German government or no new government.

 

“Let’s get p***ed and watch porn” or: how to discredit “radicalizers”

Meanwhile, the latest revelations based on the Snowden documents maintain that the NSA “has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites,” the Huffington Post reports. This is “part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches.”

Now, the most obvious question here is of course who decides what exactly constitutes “radicalizing others through incendiary speeches”.

I, for one, would suggest that London mayor Boris Johnson’s recent speech is pretty incendiary. (He said things like: “the accession of Romania to the EU means that London can do nothing to stop the “entire population of Transylvania” from pitching their tents in Marble Arch.” He also called a large parts of the population stupid (those with an IQ under 130, unless I am much mistaken) and said that “greed is good”. A lot of people (myself included) were pretty incensed by that).

Similarly, in addition to Dracula, Mr Johnson successfully evoked another vampire (Thatcher) which might go some way towards further alienating (if not radicalizing) the Scots who may just re-think their separation from the UK with renewed vigour.

Still, Boris probably has little reason to worry about his online habits; not only is the UK a member of the Five Eyes (and while their citizens may be spied on by the NSA, the London mayor probably isn’t), he also very much isn’t a Muslim.

That makes him very different from the six targets identified in the Snowden documents whom the NSA views “as “exemplars” of how “personal vulnerabilities” can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target’s credibility, reputation and authority”.

All of these targets are Muslims, although not “accused […] of being involved in terror plots.”

The latter seems to give the lie – once again – to the claim that these spying activities are merely used to “discredit” people who “are engaged in trying to recruit folks to kill Americans,” as Stewart Baker, a one-time general counsel for the NSA, has said.

It is also interesting that among the vulnerabilities listed for the targets are “publish[ing] articles without checking facts” and “a glamorous lifestyle.” If that’s the case, then a great number of authors and celebrities better batten down the hatches!

And if that warning sounds a little “incendiary” to you, consider that “U.S. officials have in the past used similar tactics against civil rights leaders, labor movement activists and others” – Martin Luther King Jr. being one of them.

 

Safe Harbour: not really a safe haven

In Europe, Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice and rights commissioner has said that the “US will have to adjust their surveillance activities to comply with EU law and enable legal redress in the US courts for Europeans whose rights may have been infringed”.

At the same time, the EU executive has threatened to “freeze crucial data-sharing arrangements with the US”.

This is because, among other things, it has emerged that “[t]he commercial data exchange [between the US and the EU], known as “Safe Harbor”, was found to be flawed,” prompting Reding to say “that things have gone very badly indeed.”

I dare you to get excited!

Consider first though that the commissioner also said that “there was little she or Brussels could do about the activities of the NSA’s main partner in mass surveillance, Britain’s […] GCHQ, since secret services in the EU were the strict remit of national governments.”

Similarly, a “UN rights committee on Tuesday [may have] passed a “right to privacy” resolution”, but that resolution was watered down following calls from both the US and the UK.

Remember how I said last week that the advent of this resolution was the single good news that had emerged at the time?

Given the limited power – or limited willingness to make use of that power – that the UN has once again demonstrated this week, I hardly think that this is much of a silver lining anymore.

Rather, the score seems to be: strong UN resolution – nil, EU oversight over GCHQ and ability to protect EU citizens from spying – probably limited to the equivalent of nil.

 

Oh Canada!

Elsewhere in the world, Thursday 28th November saw Canadian opposition politicians “shock[ed] and anger[ed] […] over a report that the [NSA] conducted widespread surveillance” “during the 2010 G8 and G20 summits” with permission of “Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government”.

As the CBC reports, “spying at the Toronto summit in 2010 fits a pattern of economic and political espionage by the powerful U.S. intelligence agency and its partners,” which, yet again, makes it clear that mass surveillance is not merely conducted to aid the so-called “war on terror”.

Then again, given Stewart Baker’s argument that on the ground that any system could be abused “you could question almost any tactic we use in a war,” perhaps we are all overreacting.

Perhaps we have got to that “point [where we] have to say we’re counting on our officials to know the difference”.

Er, no, I am not being serious.

And I hope I am not the only one who finds the war rhetoric disturbing.

Can I just ask: how about we not only question war tactics but the war itself?

Again, where is the evidence that terror plots have been foiled by aid of mass surveillance? We still haven’t seen it.

In an op-ed for the New York Times that calls for an end to dragnet surveillance Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich point this out yet again:

“The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security.”

However, what we are seeing instead is that “international security experts question whether the NSA spying operation at the G20 in Toronto was even legal.” The same is true of a couple of other NSA activities.

For the sake of clarity and completeness, however, let me point out that the New York Times quotes Wesley K. Wark, who studies intelligence issues at the University of Ottawa, as saying “that a joint effort by the Canadian and American agencies to monitor other countries’ leaders at the meeting would be “quite alarming and possibly illegal,” but that it was also possible that the N.S.A. operation in Ottawa was nothing more than a part of the general security operations surrounding President Obama’s trip”.

Mr Wark “also noted that the Canadian agency was not identified in the news report, leaving open the possibility that the N.S.A. worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s equivalent to the C.I.A.”.

 

Who is worried?

Well, then…in other news…

The spooks themselves have expressed some woes and worries this week, as claims of a “doomsday” cache of “highly classified, heavily encrypted material […] stored [by Edward Snowden] on a data cloud” were heard once again.

The cache is said to contain “documents generated by the NSA and other agencies and includes names of U.S. and allied intelligence personnel,” Reuters reports.

We have heard all this before. Reports of a “dead man’s switch” implemented by Edward Snowden as an “insurance policy” date back to the early days of the Snowden disclosures.

The reason it worries the spooks is that they fear names might fall into the wrong hands.

However, the data in the cache, if it exists, is said to be heavily encrypted and in the possession of several different people

And repeat: we have not seen any evidence that any people have been compromised in the wake of the Snowden leaks (what Jimmy Wales said).

And the spooks are not the only people to have expressed concern this week either.

In their NY Times op-ed, Senators Mark Udall, Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich worry that “the surveillance reform bill recently ratified by the Senate Intelligence Committee would explicitly permit the government to engage in dragnet collection”.

I am worried about that too. Rather than to curtail NSA surveillance, US officials like senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, seem determined to legalize it and to “preserv[e] business as usual”.  

I cannot help but think that this move is welcomed by the NSA who in a February 2012 paper criticised that “existing American laws were not adequate to meet the needs of the N.S.A. to conduct broad surveillance in what it cited as “the golden age of Sigint,” or signals intelligence.”

The same document outlines a strategy to “aggressively pursue legal authorities and a policy framework mapped more fully to the information age”.

Seems that Ms Feinstein has made up her mind to provide the NSA with exactly the legislation in wishes for.

Fortunately, pressure is mounting in the US senate “to allow a vote on legislation that would curb” NSA surveillance.

Mind you, the same paper that outlines the NSA’s legislation strategy also suggests “that the N.S.A. plans to gain greater access, in a variety of ways, to the infrastructure of the world’s telecommunications networks.”

Which brings me to the next big worry: “The recent revelation that the [NSA] was able to eavesdrop on the communications of Google and Yahoo users without breaking into either company’s data centers,” probably using “the fiber-optic cables that connect data centers around the world”.

Remember, the NSA’s objective is “nothing less than to “dramatically increase mastery of the global network,”” and to do that, [o]ne program, code-named Treasure Map, provides what a secret N.S.A. PowerPoint presentation describes as “a near real-time, interactive map of the global Internet.”

I have commented previously on why this new kind of virtual mapping is scary and worrying.

But if you need further convincing, consider Glenn Greenwald’s comments about why “the NSA’s surveillance of metadata […] [is] more intrusive than the content of the calls itself”.

So yes, again, you should absolutely be worried too!

And if you need even more convincing why not take a look at what Julian Sanchez writes about how “[i]n light of the government’s demonstrated willingness to expand its surveillance powers through secret court rulings and tortured legal reasoning, there’s little way of knowing what limits on NSA surveillance truly remain.”

Mr Sanchez makes the very important point that “if we remain complacent out of the fear of terrorism […] we are likely to realize only too late that there is no longer anywhere left to hide.”

 

Wake up and pay attention

It is about time, therefore, that governments started heeding calls from people like Mr Udall, Mr Wyden, Mr Heinrich, and – in the UK – former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord MacDonald who has urged that greater powers be given to the “parliamentary committee which monitors the security services”.

Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen.

For now, people in the UK should pay close attention to the coming session of the Commons home affairs select committee on Tuesday which will see the questioning of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

I for one, am curious to see if they will treat him as gently as they did the UK spy chiefs a month ago.

After all, as was said at the Guardian Activate Conference in New York this week, “journalistic oversight” and whistleblowing are the last resort if traditional oversight systems fail us, but it is becoming increasingly evident that especially in the UK “the work of the journalist investigating spying is threatened [not only] by the spies themselves” but also by governments trying to maintain the status quo.

In dealing with the Guardian and Mr Rusbridger, the UK government would do well to consider what Yochai Benckler says:

“Clearly when someone opens up to the public a matter that is of such enormous public concern that it leads to such broad acceptance of the need for change and for reform, that person ought not come under the thumb of criminal prosecution.”

And the US government might want to consider that as well, as should the rest of the world, when judging Edward Snowden’s actions.

As was said during the discussion in New York, there must be room for individual acts of conscience.

At the moment, that room seems to be shrinking.

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And on the government agenda this week: amending agreements and avoiding issues

“Mr. Snowden’s revelations are not to blame for [Germany’s] strained relationship with America; what’s to blame is illegal spying that affects every single person, all the way up to the chancellor… [W]e… owe a basic debt to Mr. Snowden. We demand an immediate change in the government’s policy.”

Due to work commitments, I am a bit short on time and therefore I am writing this post in a bit of a hurry. However, I did not want to leave you without some comments on the developments around the NSA, Edward Snowden and surveillance this week.

 

NSA Session in German Parliament

The above quote is taken from an op-ed in the New York Times by Malte Spitz, a German Green Party politician and a privacy activist and Hans-Christian Ströbele a Green Party member of the German parliament. Ströbele serves on the intelligence committee.

In a special session of the German parliament this week, Mr Ströbele asked a couple of important questions. One of them being if the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had ever thought about thanking Mr Snowden for making her aware, amongst other things, that her phone had been bugged by the NSA, enabling her to demand explanations from the US.

Mr Ströbele also stressed, once again, that the government’s reaction (or lack thereof) towards the spying revelations is significant not just when it comes to spying on political leaders but, importantly, when it comes to spying on citizens – that is innocent people whose governments have a responsibility to protect them.

Disappointingly, most of our elected leaders have not been exactly emphatic in their demands for clarification or respect for our rights – some of them clearly think that we are all being a bit naïve and should consider giving up those rights in the interest of national security. Same old.

While the German government is among those lobbying for stronger data protection laws, the NSA session in the German parliament was still mostly disappointing. Not only did Ms Merkel have nothing to say in response to Mr Ströbele’s questions. She did not have anything to say on the NSA situation at all. Instead, she gave the podium to her ministers, who chose to repeat the same old platitudes they have been churning out for almost six months now.

For the chancellor to remain quiet during a parliamentary session specifically called to discuss the NSA is telling. Ms Merkel once again seems to be waiting for the storm to blow over so that she can continue on without upsetting anyone. Certainly not her “friends” in the US. The flaw in that logic is obvious.

People are already upset. And the so-called “friendships” the US has with other countries are very obviously “strained” by revelations of mass spying.

To insist that it is for the US’s partners to make sure that their relations with the US are not damaged further makes little sense: the US has violated the civil rights of millions of innocent people around the world. Still trying to make sure they continue to like us is to affirm that, no matter how outraged we may be, the US can simply do as it likes and treat us not with respect but with contempt.

How that is not obvious to Ms Merkel and her minions could be considered a mystery – except it isn’t.

 

UK and US cooperation

Cue the UK, where news broke this week that in 2007 “an agreement was reached that allowed the [NSA] to “unmask” and hold on to personal data about Britons that had previously been off limits.”

This changes the rules on previous Five Eyes agreements that ensured that data from citizens of Five Eyes countries has to be “minimized”, i.e. stripped out of NSA databases, to protect the citizens of each country from surveillance by any of the others.

This news is as significant as it is chilling. As the Guardian reports, the NSA has “been using the UK data to conduct so-called “pattern of life” or “contact-chaining” analyses (remember Boundless Informant, the tool that “allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collection against that country“?).

Consider that the NSA “can look up to three “hops” away from a target of interest – examining the communications of a friend of a friend of a friend.” This “could pull the data of more than 5 million people into the [NSA] dragnet.” More information on the five hops method here.

Now. “The document [may] not say whether the UK Liaison Office, which is operated by GCHQ, discussed this rule change with government ministers in London before granting approval” but don’t you think it is telling that “[t]he Guardian contacted GCHQ and the Cabinet Office on Thursday November 7 to ask for clarification, but despite repeated requests since then, neither has been prepared to comment”?

The implications of both possibilities (that the UK government knew and that they didn’t – and it certainly looks as if they did) are severe.

If the UK did not know, then this constitutes a significant breach of trust by the US – not to mention a further example of their disregard and contempt – towards one (or more) of their closest “friends”.

If the UK government did know, it seems that both governments share the same disregard – and disrespect – for their citizens’ right to privacy.

We all know by now that the excuse for this is national security but we are also yet to see proof that national security interests outweigh our right to privacy – and as we are asked to surrender that right we should be allowed to discuss this before we do.

Up until now, “[t]he Five-Eyes nations have […] steered clear of the diplomatic upheavals, which have emerged as a result of revelations of the NSA spying on its allies.”

Whether or not this will change in the near or distant future remains to be seen but given the failure of the British government – along with many others – to respond to these revelations in an appropriate and responsible way, it seems doubtful. Especially when also considering that countries like Spain, and Norway like the UK have collaborated with the US in their spying efforts.

In light of this and when considering the attitude of governments, we would also do well to keep in mind that the UK in particular was one of the countries trying to water down a UN draft resolution to rein in surveillance.

The one good news this week seems to be that this resolution is now going ahead despite UK and US opposition, following a push by Germany and Brazil.

 

Diplomacy

Yet even though this is happening and chancellor Merkel and German president Joachim Gauck may be unavailable to meet a delegation of US diplomats (a reflection, I think, on the damage to international relations by NSA spying) this makes it even more dismaying that the German government in particular is still not prepared to make a move to help Edward Snowden – the person who has made this information available to them and us.

The reason that this seems more significant when it comes to Germany is twofold:

One, Germany’s past actually leaves no doubt about the threat surveillance of this scale poses to civil liberties and there can therefore be no doubt either about the value of Mr Snowden’s revelations. It is about time the government acknowledged that.

Two, Germany has recently emerged as perhaps the strongest country in Europe. As such, should its government not live up to its responsibility of making it clear that no country in the world can do as it pleases while holding the others in contempt?

Germany’s stance in this affair could set a precedent – and depending on what the government chooses to do, that precedent will be empowering or dangerous.

But the quote above does not just apply to Germany. Most international relationships are strained because of the “illegal spying that affects every single person, all the way up to” the leaders of sovereign nations.

The people of all these nations are in a similar position – this is more obvious because of the change of rules of the Five Eyes agreement. It is doubtful that their governments are acting on their behalf.

And if they don’t, it is high time that the people made themselves aware again of the principle of democratic accountability – not to mention their own responsibility.

Whether or not things get shaken up enough by recent revelations in the UK to finally move the government to action (let alone drop its ludicrous threats against the Guardian) remains to be seen.

It may seem promising that “[t]he watchdog tasked with scrutinising the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies is to demand an urgent report from GCHQ about revelations that the phone, internet and email records of British citizens have been analysed and stored by America’s National Security Agency.”

Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg “has hinted at the need for a wider inquiry into the “unimaginable” power of spying technology”.

However, although Mr Clegg’s “comments [may] increase pressure for a more independent investigation,” mere hints certainly do not seem to be enough.

Especially since former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown raises concerns over the effectiveness of Britain’s intelligence watchdog, dismissing “the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee… [as] an institution “wholly incapable of coping” with the new circumstances,” and voicing his concern that surveillance is “out of control”.

This has been obvious to many of us for a long time now and I do not agree at all with Mr Ashdown’s assessment of Mr Snowden, either.

Yet it is high time that governments caught on to the fact that more has to be done to protect the civil liberties and the very security of the internet threatened by these surveillance practices.

 

Indonesia

It should give us pause that it is not our allegedly democratic and freely elected Western governments (self-proclaimed examples to everyone else in the world) who are kicking up a fuss about this.

Following many administrations in Latin America and, yes, Russia, this week it was Indonesia which recalled its ambassador from Australia over allegations that Australia “used its embassies in Asia to collect intelligence as part of global surveillance conducted by the [NSA].”

Indonesian law-makers are set to travel to Russia to meet with Edward Snowden to discuss these allegations.

Once again, this underlines not only the importance of Mr Snowden as a witness who can shed more light on what exactly these revelations mean for everyone.

It also shows that it is possible for governments to make a very strong and emphatic statement that they will not tolerate this kind of behaviour from governments they cooperate with. Needless to say, again, that it should be completely unthinkable among “friends”.

What Mr Snowden’s revelations have shown more than anything is that while we may be allies, we are far from being “friends” and to beat about any kind of bush in the interest of that friendship is regrettable, inexcusable, and increasingly unjustifiable.

 

ACLU lawsuit

The ACLU this week made a start at defending civil rights and liberties by taking the US government to court over NSA spying. Tellingly, “Federal District Judge William Pauley III expressed a proper skepticism of the government’s claim that the program raised no constitutional concerns.”

The ACLU has started to make a stand on behalf of the American people. It is high time that our governments (call them European or Western if you will) – and the German government in particular – did the same for us.

It is time that they stop dancing around the issue, or in fact actively adding to it, and make the strong stand that Mr Ströbele demands in the comments above.

I will say it again: it is what they are here for.

Supporting Snowden – our democratic responsibility? I’m up for that – but how?

“Snowden did a great public service… If he hadn’t blown the whistle, the gargantuan IC bureaucracy would have inexorably grown even bigger and more powerful — and neither Congress, the media, the judiciary, or our political leaders would have known enough to effectively provide oversight and direction. And of course, the public would have known nothing at all.”

Freedom and Democracy: stories of horror

I have been feeling at a bit of a loss all week.

I mean, what are we to make of the news surrounding Edward Snowden, the NSA, GCHQ, and our governments as they continue to unfold five months after the first revelations? What are we to make of our own part in the whole thing? What are we to make of what increasingly seems to be our own factual inability to do anything?

I fully agree with the above statement, the rest of which you can read here, although I still can’t quite get behind the implication further down that Snowden should go home and face the music.

Yes, it is important that the laws which protect us from the wilfulness of others are shown to be effective but they also need to be flexible. It needs to be possible to carry out important acts of civil disobedience and to be judged by intentions and consequences rather than by some rigid law – especially if that law isn’t likely to be administered and a fair and unbiased way.

Robert Kuttner convincingly argues that while Mr Snowden’s actions may have been illegal, “the actions of the NSA were arguably far more threatening to a constitutional regime of liberty.”

However, it would seem that such concerns are neither here nor there.

Because the ongoing debate in the US notwithstanding upsetting news continues to emerge.

Like, for example, this report in Der Spiegel about a meeting between Senior German intelligence officials and their NSA and CIA counterparts.

Why am I not thrilled about this potential “huge progress for Berlin”?

Well, think about it. Doesn’t it look to you as if the US were now scratching Germany’s back? And do you not think that they will expect some convenient back-scratching in return? What would that look like, I wonder? And wondering about that, I do not like what I come up with at all.

Perhaps these are just the ramblings of my increasingly disillusioned mind but I cannot help thinking that the German opposition can complain abouttoo little knowledge and too much ignorance” and call for “a comprehensive investigation” all they like.

I am not sure how much hope there is of such an investigation anymore (let alone of hearing Edward Snowden as a witness), given that “NSA Director Alexander has announced plans to put together a “Germany package” containing the material that Snowden is likely to release in the coming weeks.”

Make no mistake, this is not the US being kind by warning their “friends” about potentially damaging disclosures before they occur.

This “huge progress for Berlin” will not cost the NSA much if the information they are about to put together for the Germans will be revealed over the next couple of weeks anyway.

What it may just do, however, is give the German government an excuse to not press for answers as forcefully as they should.

We’re all friends here, after all. So much so that the German domestic intelligence agency saw fit to issues a warning that “an emotional response from certain segments of the population cannot be ruled out,” recommending that “security measures aimed at protecting US facilities in Germany should be increased.”

Am I the only one who thinks it’s a bit ridiculous that in addition to the obscure and ever-present threat of “the terrorist”, it is now also “emotional” members of “the population” that endanger security?

Seriously, what is that supposed to mean? I am “emotional” about the whole thing, too.  That doesn’t make me a threat to any nation’s security.

Then again, what do I know? As far as the spooks and governments are concerned, simply refusing to see Edward Snowden as a narcissist, traitor and liar might earn me a place on their watch list. Then again, if Mr Snowden’s revelations are anything to go by, we’re pretty much all on some watch list or other anyway.

I am getting a bit tired of this kind of nonsense to be honest, let alone of it being repeated over and over again.

NSA chief Alexander banging on about how the leaked documents “being put out in a way that does the maximum damage to NSA and our nation” is another example.

Clearly, the argument that these documents could have been put out in a much more damaging way (by just being dumped – un-redacted and in bulk – on the internet somewhere for example) falls on deaf ears.

As do calls for support for Mr Snowden with the governments of whose evasive – or downright hostile – responses I am equally sick and tired.

Take the US this week, where Jeremy Hammond has just been sentenced to ten years after spending “the past 18 months in prison, including extended periods in solitary confinement” for seeking to inform the public of what is in their interest to know.

Note that “Hammond’s 10-year federal prison service makes it one of the longest punishments dished out for criminal hacking offences in US history” and that it was imposed by a judge who, according to Hammond’s lawyer “doesn’t understand the language that’s used in chat rooms and the internet.”

Hammond himself has called his sentencing a “vengeful, spiteful act”, motivated by a desire to “send a message to others who come after me” and a “need to save face.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times in a recent editorial warns of the threat to press freedom in the UK that is evident in the “harass[ment], intimidat[ion] and possibl[e] prosecut[ion]” of the Guardian.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression is equally alarmed by the UK government’s response to the Snowden leaks, describing it as “unacceptable in a democratic society.” I have a hunch that this will do little to impress the UK government.

Just so you know, following a query from the Guardian, the UK home office pretty much said it could not guarantee that no schedule 7 powers will be used against Sarah Harrison if she returns to the UK.

And a recent report in the Guardian reveals how Cambridge police tried to spy on university students and their political activities – that is students in what is supposed to be a democracy exercising their democratic rights. Do read a bit more about the chilling implications of that little anecdote here.

What question can there be, given stories like that, that we need whistleblowers like Edward Snowden to make us aware of these threats to our democracy?

If our democratically (or not) elected leaders had any sense of responsibility (dare I say any sense at all), they would be investigating the true threats to democracy posed by the surveillance apparatus (as opposed to the bogus ones they use to justify that apparatus).

“Asbolutely alone and almost broke”?

So what of Edward Snowden?

Sadly we, the public, and journalists and members of various oppositions can demand debates and investigations, not to mention help and thanks and protection for Edward Snowden, all we like. The University of Rostock in Germany may even be contemplating an honorary PhD for Edward Snowden.

That is all good and well, but I am seriously starting to wonder what good it is likely to do?

Yes, we may agree that we need to thank Edward Snowden. And doing so publicly may raise his profile in the eyes of those who are undecided about him (and perhaps his own morale, who knows?) But as regards concrete support and action on his behalf? An entirely different story.

So this week Edward Snowden’s lawyer is being quoted as saying that Mr Snowden is ‘absolutely alone in Russia’ and ‘almost broke’.

Obviously, we have little chance of verifying this. Given that this was reported (in the English speaking world at least) by Time, Business Insider and the Daily Mail at least the latter two of which have never been exactly supportive of openly hostile towards Snowden and the reporting journalists, this may well have been blown up to sound more dramatic than it actually is.

However, Natasha Lennard writes in Salon that “Thomas Drake, Snowden’s forerunner in NSA whistle-blowing […] told [her] earlier this year that one of the greatest burdens that attended his life qua whistle-blower was near financial ruination.”

Whether reports of Mr Snowden’s being “broke and lonely” are true or not, what they point out once again is that for “forc[ing] a debate that is long overdue and that will slow or even reverse America’s slide into a society of universal surveillance” Mr Snowden has been exiled in Russia. And broad public approval of his actions aside, still too little seems to be done in the way of direct, substantial support.

This impression may be wrong and I by no means mean to diminish or undervalue the support that Mr Snowden has received from countless individuals around the world, be it by way of public demonstrations, donations, articles, blogs, tweets or other expressions of gratitude and admiration.

Certainly, the reporting journalists, WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison and others deserve our utmost respect.

The problem is that our governments do not seem to share that view. They do not seem to be listening when we demand that they support and protect Edward Snowden, either – well, fat chance of them listening anyway (unless in secret of course)!

Democracy: can it be done?

Which brings me to Russell Brand.

Recently on Newsnight, Mr Brand admitted that he had never voted. He made some very excellent points but I did not quite agree that it was justified not to vote at all, no matter how frustrated we are with our political class.

I do believe in the democratic model and I would argue that voting – even if you vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party because you are fed up with the rest of them – is a way of ensuring that democracy continues.

And even if democracy doesn’t seem to be working very well at the moment, I don’t think a better alternative is available either.

I certainly agree with Mr Brand when he writes that “we deserve more from our democratic system.”

Ah but you see here is the catch. We cannot blame it all on the democratic system without having to take some of the blame ourselves. Democracy itself isn’t the problem; it’s a lack democratic responsibility that is the real concern.

Democracy is supposed to give power to the people, yet I personally have been feeling increasingly powerless. And the inability to make ourselves properly heard about our concerns for Mr Snowden or the NSA or GCHQ of the BND is but one example. I think one reason for that is that we allow ourselves to be (made) powerless.

Democracy increasingly seems to mean that we pass our power off to an elected few who then go away and do as they please – because we do not submit them to proper scrutiny. If we allow for that to happen, we ourselves become a threat to democracy. And that threat is also evident in how people who make scrutiny possible again are persecuted, detained, threatened, and prosecuted.

Edward Snowden has made us aware of large-scale of surveillance. More than that, he has made us aware of what is done in our name but without our consent. In the months that followed the worrying attitudes of the world’s governments not only towards surveillance but also towards whistleblowers, journalists, investigative journalism and, yes, us as people and citizens have come to light. Attitudes that threaten democracy.

And for exposing that threat, and for trying to give some knowledge and power back to us, Mr Snowden had to give up his home, his life, and his family.

So for me the question of what we as a crowd of more or less “silent” (that is: unheard?) supporters can do to give something back to this person who has made scrutiny possible again, and who many of us most feel we owe a massive debt, seems to be as much one of conscience as of democratic responsibility.

As the people we have elected to act on our behalf do not seem to be listening, doesn’t democracy also mean that we need to stand up for what we think is right?

So, answer me this: what can we do?

So, what can we do then, concretely, to pick up those ends that our elected leaders have left loose?

How can we support Mr Snowden when they won’t?

An example:

Say we were to try crowd-funding to ease Mr Snowden’s financial burdens. How would we be able to reassure people that donations to this fund are indeed meant for Mr Snowden? Importantly, how would we able to ensure that the funds raised on his behalf actually reached him?

As given the attitude towards Mr Snowden and investigative journalists in some supposedly democratic countries, would supporters of Mr Snowden actually have to fear legal consequences for trying something more substantial (and or course entirely legal) than “just” exercising their right to freedom of expression?

I mean these questions seriously and I am looking for answers.

Whoever has any, do let me know.

P.S. I am aware that a defense fund seems to have been set up for Mr Snowden that is to support his legal costs. Yet this can be only one step, surely. What else is there?

Something rotten in the state of… Why Germany should offer Edward Snowden asylum – and why it won’t.

When whistleblowers come forward we need to fight for them, so others will be encouraged. When they are gagged, we must be their voice. When they are hunted, we must be their shield. When they are locked away, we must free them. Giving us the truth is not a crime. – Sarah Harrison

In the news this week

The news this week saddens me. And that’s even though there is some pretty interesting stuff coming out of Germany in particular.

Nothing exactly new, after all, at the so-called “grilling” (read: gentle stroking) of the UK spy chiefs (MI6 chief Sir John Sawers, GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban and MI5 director-general Andrew Parker). Legal pressure group Reprieve has called the session a “damp squib” and they are not wrong.

I refer you to the Guardian’s coverage for evidence of why this is the case: important questions mostly failed to be asked and if they were, the answers consisted of over-used and much-contradicted metaphors (such as the one with the needle in the haystack which Al Gore so recently and brilliantly rebutted).

So, Germany then. More exciting things have been going on there. Or so you might think.

I certainly got a bit giddy when Hans-Christian Stroebele of the German Green Party visited Edward Snowden in Moscow last week to discuss Mr Snowden’s potential testimony before an inquiry board into NSA and GCHQ spying. The German government is currently debating calling Edward Snowden as a witness. Sadly, that news is not anywhere near as exciting as it sounds and my enthusiasm has since cooled considerably. More on that in a minute.

…. Great Britain

First though, some news about Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks.

Often referred to as Julian Assange’s lieutenant, she has been by Edward Snowden’s side since he made his way to Moscow four months ago. Now she has left Russia to join “the growing band of net activists stranded in Berlin”, following advice from her lawyers that it would not be safe for her to return to her native UK.

She has issued a statement, stressing that while “Snowden is currently safe in Russia, […] there are whistleblowers and sources to whom this does not apply” and that “there is still much work to be done”.

She is right, of course. Chelsea Manning, for one, is serving a 35-year prison sentence and there is no telling what will happen to Edward Snowden once his asylum in Russia expires in nine months.

Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda has launched a high court challenge into his detention at Heathrow airport earlier this year – the application of schedule 7 powers being but one example of precisely why Sarah Harrison is probably right not to return to the UK where Julian Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy (and no, I am still not a fan).

I am sure we all remember that, in July this year, British government officials supervised the destruction of computers in the Guardian basement.

As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger writes in The New York Review of Books “[t]he British state [at the time] had decreed that there had been “enough” debate around the material leaked […] by […] Edward Snowden.”

The ensuing discussion of the state of press freedom in the UK and elsewhere in the so-called Western world is ongoing.

So is reporting on the Snowden leaks. So far, the UK government’s attempts at silencing the reporting by “clos[ing] down the Guardian operation in London” have – thankfully – been “fruitless”.

Snowden himself writes:

“At the beginning, some of the governments who were exposed by the revelations of mass surveillance initiated an unprecedented smear campaign. They intimidated journalists and criminalised the publication of the truth. Today we know that this was a mistake, and that such behaviour is not in the public interest. The debate they tried to stop is now taking place all over the world.”

Stories have continued to emerge which have, at last, led to international indignation.

For an overview of the Snowden revelations and what they mean, see the Guardian’s excellent interactive guide NSA Files: Decoded.

… Germany

Most recently, “[t]he British ambassador in Berlin was called in for a meeting at the German foreign ministry […] to explain allegations that Britain had been using its embassy to carry out covert electronic surveillance on Angela Merkel’s government.”

This just after a Spiegel report last week on how “the US embassy in Berlin had a structure on its roof that was used by a special unit of the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor the mobile phone conversations of German officials, including Merkel, in nearby government buildings.”

Then Stroebele’s visit to Moscow and support for Mr Snowden from the German public.

No wonder, perhaps, that I got a little bit excited about developments in Germany at first – although only very carefully and not exclusively in a good way.

Needless to say that my excitement didn’t last. By now I am once again saddened and deeply upset. Why?

Because no matter how much Mr Snowden’s revelations have done to inform the world of the extent of surveillance, no matter how far they have gone in inspiring a much-needed public debate – never mind investigations into the legality of NSA and GHCQ surveillance programmes – I do not think that this will end particularly well for him.

Illusions are a common thing

Asylum in Germany, as demanded publicly by an increasing number of people (including celebrities and politicians), would be a fantastic thing. Yet it seems that the word “fantastic” is closely related to term “fantasy” for a very good reason: we may make-believe that it is a possibility. But it really isn’t.

Alan Rusbridger makes the point that “[i]f, say, the Chinese had behaved like this toward the Internet and toward social platforms used around the world, there would be barely contained fury in the West.”

Similarly, I would argue that if it had been, say, the Chinese or, in fact, the Russians who behaved like that, anyone making this publicly known would have been championed by the same Western governments who now continue to refuse to help Edward Snowden (and persecute others who did help him).

I fail to be impressed at the opportunism of much of Germany’s political elite. Yes sure, they would like Mr Snowden to be their witness but will they, in turn, protect him and give him shelter? No, of course they won’t.

Public support for Mr Snowden notwithstanding, the German government has once again confirmed that we need not have any illusions about asylum for Mr Snowden in Germany. “The trans-Atlantic alliance is of overwhelming value” they said.

Now, I’d be the first to concede that it is possible that our governments know so much more than we do about the intricacies of international relations that we may not be in the best place to fathom what exactly it is we are asking when demanding that our governments stand up to the US (this is what the German government claims).

However, given the way events have unfolded and the fury that is rising throughout Germany and the rest of the world, I am not sure I see how potential further damage to transatlantic relations outweighs the benefit – never mind the moral imperative – of granting Edward Snowden asylum, especially if he is to help Germany with its inquiry.

Rather, “Angela Merkel,” as Philip Olterman writes in the Guardian, “seems to be avoiding direct confrontation with Washington.” And she certainly does not want Edward Snowden in Germany.

“There is no reason to make a call on a Snowden stay in Germany at this stage,” German MP Michael Grosse-Brömer has said.

Dear German government: it is up to you to help Snowden

But is there really no reason to make such a call? I don’t know about that.

Rather, I agree with Heiner Geissler, the former general secretary of the Christian Democrats (Angela Merkel’s party, no less), who says that “Snowden has done the western world a great service. It is now up to us to help him.”

Yes, it is up to us to help him. It always has been. And it is a sad state of affairs that the German government is so eager to tap Mr Snowden’s knowledge, while at the same time refusing him that help.

In the US, the White House and Congress have rejected clemency for Mr Snowden, saying that he has “done [an] enormous disservice” to the USA. Michigan Republican and former FBI agent Mike Rogers once again accused Mr Snowden of cooperating with the Russians “and of helping three al-Qaida-linked groups to change the way they communicate in order to evade US intercepts, putting troops’ lives at risk in Afghanistan.”

Similar claims were made by UK’s spy chiefs on Thursday – and can I just remind everyone that they have been repeatedly and convincingly refuted, while there has been no concrete evidence of any damage to national security?

It is no surprise that the US (or the UK) would react in this way. Sadly, it is no surprise that Germany continues to refuse Mr Snowden asylum either.

Still, Jakob Augstein (link in German) argues convincingly that Mr Snowden should be granted asylum in Germany, and why.

Not only, Augstein says, has the argument that the conditions for asylum do not apply always been false.

More than that, offering asylum to Edward Snowden would send a strong signal that Germany and other European countries are not ready to sacrifice their rights to American supremacy. Mr Augstein argues that Germany is currently the only European country strong enough to send that signal while citing precedents for when previous chancellors have stood up to the US.

But granting Mr Snowden asylum would also send a signal to future whistleblowers that there is a country that protects their rights and freedom – which, I assume, is a position the German government is careful to avoid, even though Germany has previously offered asylum to whistleblowers and dissidents.

Asylum for Edward Snowden? If only…

All manner of reasoning and citing precedents will probably do little to convince the German government or the chancellor that offering Edward Snowden asylum is the right thing to do.

For them, the relationship between Germany and the USA takes precedence over the fall-out from the NSA revelations or, in fact, the danger of worsening US-German relations.

Yet I cannot be the only one to whom the reasoning that the relationship between Germany and the USA would be significantly damaged by an offer of asylum seems a little upside-down.

It is, after all, the US’s large-scale spying that has damaged these relations. If anyone, it is the US (and the UK) who should be grovelling, not European governments.

How can Ms Merkel’s government fail to see that it is not for Germany to worry about damage to international relations – it is for the USA to do that? The damage has been done. Isn’t it about time someone stood up and made it clear to the USA and the UK in no uncertain terms that other governments will not tolerate their behaviour?l.

Wouldn’t it be great if Mr Snowden, once his temporary asylum in Russia ends, found a new home in Germany – a country that, because of its own deeply flawed Stasi past, should be most mindful of the value his revelations hold?

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the German government proved courageous enough to stand up to the USA at a time when this is badly needed?

Some German MPs agree. Currently, a majority seems to be forming in the Bundestag that supports the idea of offering asylum to Edward Snowden. That majority might see parliament granting Mr Snowden asylum without the chancellor’s consent.

It is not entirely impossible I suppose; the UK House of Commons recently voted against military intervention in Syria, even though Prime Minister Cameron had fiercely lobbied in favour of it.

However, a vote against military intervention by a country that is tired of war and voting in favour of asylum for a man who is wanted internationally for crimes against the Espionage Act… not quite the same thing.

And even if the German parliament were to go against Merkel and her minions, I am not so sure that Edward Snowden would do well in going to Germany. Laura Poitras and Sarah Harrison feeling safe there is one thing… Edward Snowden, quite another.

Upsetting and frustrating

I started this blog months ago because I was upset not only by Edward Snowden’s revelations in themselves but also by the international response to – and lack of support for – Mr Snowden.

The past week has done little to quench these feelings of upset and frustration. I have little faith in the German government anyway; I have even less faith in them where the USA and Mr Snowden are concerned.

More than that,  while the public response in Germany is, as Sarah Harrison writes in her statement, “heartening” and, I guess, also deeply moving in its own right, in the end I fear it will prove to be little more than that. I don’t think it will do anything to alter the government’s course. We may elect our leaders to act on our behalf, yet we can do little to stop them ignoring us afterwards – especially when we have just re-elected them.

Then again, perhaps the people who voted Ms Merkel back in only a few weeks ago agree completely with her course of action. In which case we only have ourselves to blame.

Lon Snowden has warned his son against seeking asylum in Germany, saying he does not trust the German government. Instinctively, I have to agree. Yet until a short while ago I was also convinced that Russia would cave in to US pressure and extradite Mr Snowden. Instead, Russia offered him asylum.

Would that Germany proves me wrong in a similar way. Would that my own country fights for this whistleblower to encourage others.

I know it’s not going to happen. But I guess we can still fantasize.