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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