I am taking two weeks off.

Dear readers,

I need a break. So I am taking time off from blogging until I return from my holiday in two weeks’ time.

I hope you all had a good Christmas.


Have a good start to the New Year and if you haven’t done it yet, take a look at Mr Snowden’s Christmas message as broadcast by the UK’s Channel 4 on Christmas Day.


Why my head hurts: British democracy sleeps, and shoots messengers – and people do mostly nothing

“It has been an astounding week in the surveillance vs. privacy debate, from a bracing federal court ruling on Monday to 46 detailed, if porous, recommendations today for NSA reform.”

What I really want to do…

I really want to comment on Edward Snowden’s letter to the people of Brazil this week. I think it is a must-read that shows once again what an inspirational thinker Mr Snowden is.

I would also like to comment on the ACLU’s defence of him as a patriot and why they are right.

At the start of the week I thought I was going to write about the Home Affairs Select Committee “grilling” UK Home Secretary Theresa May.

Or I could talk about the 60 minute piece aired on CBS and how much I snorted at the patronizing tone of voice in which Keith Alexander explained why collecting metadata is the “least intrusive way” of getting the information the NSA needs to stop “the bad guy”.

… and why I won’t do it.

But I won’t. Why?

Because, yes, it has been a busy – if perhaps not quite astounding – week and lots has been going on.

Mind you, the documents by Mr Snowden and the ACLU are actually self-explanatory and if you read them you will see what I mean.

The Twitter sphere, I think, has taken good care of the CBS piece as have many others who have picked it apart.

As such, Techdirt has collected some of the most striking issues with the piece.

The Atlantic picks apart one of the most misleading exchanges between Keith Alexander and CBS correspondent John Miller – misleading for the audience, mind you.

The Verge warns us not to be fooled by CBS’s “propaganda piece” while The Nation bemoans the “sad decline” of 60 minutes evident in its NSA “whitewash”.

As for the Home Affairs Select Committee session in the UK, I thought it was interesting for one reason only. It confirmed, once again, what UK Home Secretary Theresa May was not willing to discuss, which was pretty much everything.

She “expects”, she said (and she said that a lot) that everything is in order with the British spy service GCHQ and that the spy chiefs’ reassurances that everything is in order and that Edward Snowden and the Guardian have damaged national security should be enough for us.

No surprises there. I was quite dismayed that the MPs on the committee did not actually grill her that much at all.

So, overall, even though the session was useful in re-affirming the impression that the UK government does not seem at all interested in a debate on the capabilities of its spy agencies, the thing felt like a bit of a let-down and it did not even have an Alan Rusbridger to make it more interesting.

Debate in the UK: Alan Rusbridger and Jimmy Wales vs. David Omand and others

However, another debate in the UK this week did.

And it raised a number of important concerns as well. Which is why I am going to focus on it in this post. I am also going to address the recommendations published this week in the US by president Obama’s review panel but because what is happening in the UK – namely the continued unwillingness of government to address these issues sensibly – seems to be in such stark contrast to what is happening in the US, especially this week, I am going to take the UK debate as my starting point.

As Alan Rusbridger has put it in a recent Guardian op-ed: “In the US, the official response to Snowden’s revelations celebrates journalism and calls for real change. In Britain, the picture has been rather different.”

This is very true. An editorial in the Observer this week correctly makes the point that the NSA/GCHQ debate is turning increasingly into “a cautionary tale of two countries” with “profound” differences at their core: “American democracy,” the editorial states, “awakes and reacts. British democracy sleeps, and shoots messengers.”

And it doesn’t look likely to change.

In response to the report submitted by Mr Obama’s review panel in the US, British PM David Cameron has come out saying that his “view on the powers of the UK intelligence agencies remains unchanged” while refusing to comment on the report itself.

“As I understand it,” Mr Cameron’s spokesman said, “it’s a report to the US administration and we don’t comment about the exchanges that we have, the very close security relationship with the US. We don’t comment on the details.”

That has been the general reaction by the UK government to the Snowden disclosures: “We do not comment on the details.” Debate in the UK is not encouraged by government – and the government certainly will have no part in it.

However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t occurring.

This week’s debate in which Alan Rusbridger, Jimmy Wales and David Omand, among others, debated UK surveillance with MPs is one example.

So, what was said then?


In the beginning, Rusbridger raised ten issues, some of which struck me as particularly important to remember and consider:

1.)   The issue of consent. This refers to the consent of the citizens whose data is being collected, stored, analysed, as well as the consent of parliament, which, according to Rusbridger, was never given:

“whenever parliament has been given the opportunity to consider whether there should be […] giant databases [for mass storage of communication details], it has said no”.

2.)   The issue of legality:

“[T]he laws applied to the security services come from an age before the modern internet,” Mr Rusbridger said. They are “analogue laws in a digital age”.

At this point, he also pointed out an important decision by a federal court judge in the US this week: the US phone data programme is probably unconstitutional.

US Court Ruling and Obama’s review panel

This ruling is important. CNN has put together five key questions which clarify the most important points.

And there have been other important developments in the USA as well.

As such, the review panel established by President Obama in reaction to the Snowden revelations has come out with a 300-page report which, amongst other things, calls for the NSA to be stripped of its bulk collection powers.

Don’t get too excited though because this isn’t as good as it sounds. The way the report envisions this is that the data will still be stored by private companies and that the NSA will need a court order to search through it.

This may constitute an additional safeguard but, as privacy advocates point out, it is still data collection and storage on a massive scale.

“It’s not a solution to simply repackage the bulk collection under private control,” said Alex Abdo of the ACLU – and he is right, of course.

In addition to this, the report – while proposing some meaningful reforms – falls sadly short of others. I, for one, do not understand why spying on foreign leaders would be left mainly intact. Surely, if this is all about counter-terrorism then the likes of Angela Merkel should not be surveillance targets.

And can I just ask; what is “GCHQ doing bugging German government offices, listening to EU Commission conversations, tuning in to hear what the Israeli PM’s got to say … or leering over Unicef’s shoulder?”

Clearly, no one’s so-called “enemies in the supposed war on terror” are “doctors saving lives in the African bush”!

Or, as Leigh Daynes, executive director of Médecins du Monde, in the UK has said: “There is absolutely no reason for our operations to be secretly monitored.”

Possibly, I am just hopelessly naïve.

“Foreigners, after all, are whom the NSA exists to spy on. And spying on foreign leaders, even allied ones, is the oldest trick in the signals-intelligence book”.

Also, “[s]pies have a freer hand with economic targets in Britain, where the law permits intelligence gathering in the service of the “economic well-being” of the country.”

That’s all right then…not.

No, I am not wrong to criticise. And I am not the only one to do so either. Privacy advocates worldwide have not received the panel’s report in a positive way.

Why not have a look at it for yourselves?

The Guardian has comments on its essentials here that are well worth reading.

There is also an interesting collection of the key points of the review and the stories that prompted them here.

The report itself is here and live coverage of the events surrounding its publication here.

Yes, the report takes several steps in the right direction.

Senator Ron Wyden, one of the greatest critics of bulk data collection, hails it as providing “substantial, meaningful reforms”.

Similarly, Alan Rusbridger calls it “wide-ranging, informed and thoughtful” and praises it for “leap[ing] beyond the timid privacy-versus-national security platitudes which have stifled so much of the debate in the UK. It doesn’t blame journalism for dragging the subject into the open: it celebrates it.”

In that respect yes, the report is important, as it gives the lie to the outrageous idea voiced by British authorities that there has been “enough debate” on the subject.

But even Mr Rusbridger, despite his enthusiasm about the report’s take on the press, acknowledges (in passing) that it is “not especially radical”.

Likewise, Senator Wyden has “concerns about having the companies hold the phone data for the NSA.”

And Marcy Wheeler comments in the Guardian on how the question of legality was never answered either.

Here is what I think: considering that the report leaves the door open for mass data storage to happen elsewhere (with the telecom companies rather than the NSA) and considering that members of Congress like Diane Feinstein “back […] an alternative to the USA Freedom Act that would bolster the NSA’s powers to store communications data” likely as not no substantial change will happen as far as mass storage of metadata is concerned.

President Obama’s, as the New York Times calls it “disappointing” response is one indication of that.

The NY Times’ editorial board is not wrong in saying that “there was really only one course [the president could] take on surveillance policy from an ethical, moral, constitutional and even political point of view…to embrace the recommendations of his handpicked panel… to end the obvious excesses.”

Only he didn’t. Instead, he will “let us know next month which, if any, he intends to follow.”

Thanks for that, then.

More Issues

Back to Mr Rusbridger and the issues he has raised (again) this week.

One of them, especially significant in the week when Theresa May faced the Home Affairs Select Committee, is the issue of oversight: is there enough of it? Also, does success in foiling terrorist attacks justify mass surveillance and the secrecy that makes effective oversight so difficult? A clue: no.

“Bad things are happening on the internet” or: why uploading a bomb building manual is probably not a good idea

As to the question of whether mass surveillance and the secrecy that surrounds its oversight are justified, Labour MP George Howarth, who is on the ISC – the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee which, in theory, is responsible for “oversight of operational activity and the wider intelligence and security activities of Government” – insisted for example that with “absolute certainty, in [the UK], […] being able to access that material has stopped attacks.”

He did not, however, give any evidence of that. Quite possibly because that material is classified. Sound familiar?

It gets better. Because Mr Howarth also said something very confusing which seems to testify to his own assertion that he isn’t the most tech-savvy person out there.

“Bad things are going on in the internet,” he said. Oh really. In case you didn’t know or believe this already, Mr Howarth suggests that you find out for yourself by – wait for it – accessing “al-Qaida’s Inspire online magazine and follow the links to other sites they host. You can find out how to make a bomb, where to get the materials from.”

I am half-tempted to try. Only I won’t.

Part of the reason is that I do not find Mr Howarth’s assertion that “accessing the site and downloading things from it is perfectly legal, but uploading is not.”

“So if you go on the site, don’t upload it,” he said. Eh? So yes, we are all being tracked but as long as we don’t upload bomb building manuals to al-Qaida we should be fine?

He continued to make another rather obvious point: “I do think there is a case for change, but it needs to be intelligent and incremental change…We need to strike the right balance between personal privacy and national security”.

Hear, hear. I would agree if it wasn’t for the subtext I keep hearing when most UK MPs go on about striking the balance between. That subtext usually tilts the balance clearly in favour of security and secrecy and in disfavour of privacy.

So good luck with that and with the oversight you have at the moment. And if you manage reform, tell Diane Feinstein how to do it right.


Consent and Human Rights

Next up, Labour MP Katy Clark who said that “it is particularly important for Labour to talk about this.”

Thanks for that; I was wondering for a moment there, if Labour were indeed the Her Majesty’s opposition or if I had made that up, considering that Mr Howarth sounded a bit like your average Tory.

She also raised a number of other concerns in relation to the way these revelations have been received in the UK.

Perhaps most importantly, however, she said one thing very clearly that has been bothering me all along and which I feel has not been said emphatically enough:

“These things have happened not in our name and not with our consent.”

And at last, here is a member of parliament who bothers to mention that:

“Parliament voted through the Human Rights Act […] Article eight of the convention on human rights makes it clear we have a right to privacy – court decisions suggest it is very difficult to justify blanket collection of personal data under that.”

At last someone has said it clearly! Because I was beginning to wonder if I had made that one up as well.

Why my head hurts: Sir David Omand

By contrast, my response to Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ, was to repeatedly bang my forehead on my desktop.

Mind you, he wasn’t the only one eliciting that reaction from me this week: Tories Julian Smith and Louise Mensch did too, even though they weren’t present at the hearing. They didn’t need to be. They are perfectly capable of talking nonsense in public without being given a podium to so so.

Anyway, here is why my head hurts.

Headdesk #1:

“These revelations would not have come as a shock if the Guardian had done more homework.”

Translation: the information is out there. There are many, many books about it. We could all have known this, had we read them. If we don’t educate ourselves, why are we so upset? It’s all our fault (and the Guardian’s of course).

Headdesk #2:

“Much of what has been reported about what Snowden stole has been misleading.”

Note how he says “stole”, not “blew the whistle on”. Note also how he blames journalists, once again, for “misleading” reporting. None of this is the government’s or the spy agencies’ fault, of course. It is us with our naïve belief that we are not, or should not, be spied on because we have a right to privacy. It is news organisations like the Guardian with their misleading and irresponsible reporting that are at fault.

Like so:

Headdesk #3, 4, 5 and 6 (this one is a real whopper)

A “major category error” runs through the Guardian’s reporting. It is journalistic sleight of hand to confuse access to fibre-optic cables with mass surveillance. “We are not actually subject to mass surveillance in this country”, but we are “blessed” with an intelligence community that has “bulk access”.

Here is how this should be read:

A “major category error” runs through the government’s and the spy agencies’ reaction to the Guardian’s reporting. It is sleight of hand to keep referring to the collection of data from fibre optic cables as not being mass surveillance because it is “only” metadata that is being collected. We are subject to mass surveillance, make no mistake, and we are certainly not “blessed” with an intelligence community that has “bulk access”.

In this context, consider that the review panel in the US has rejected the idea that “bulk collection is not surveillance at all.”

Also, once again that nonsense that “[y]ou need […] bulk access […] to stop the terrorists.” (Something that Keith Alexander also keeps banging on about – most recently in that journalistic gem on CBS).

Can I just remind everyone that there has so far been no evidence that…? Feel free to complete the sentence.

Headdesk #7:

“It is helpful for the intelligence agency heads to be seen in public so people can see the kind of people they are – but accountability is something else again. Ministers should be accountable to parliament, but the agency heads should not be accountable to parliament. Otherwise you are building up the agency heads into something they are not.”

Well, if the important thing is for the intelligence agency heads to be seen in public but not exactly possible for them to be held accountable by that public, then I have another idea: let them go to the pub. Or, even better, put them in the zoo. At least that might be a laugh.

Can I just ask, who should the agency heads be accountable to if not parliament, i.e. the elected representatives of the people they profess to protect? Ministers, Omand says, meaning what? The ISC? Well, whether the ISC is useful as a tool for accountability is debatable.

Cue Alan Rusbridger who said that “he did not feel the ISC’s televised session with the spy chiefs did the chiefs any favours. It felt very mild and very scripted […] He compare[d] the ISC to the Press Complaints Commission, whose chairman used to go out and defend the press it was supposed to be regulating.”

“In contrast with their American counterparts on the senate oversight committee,” Alan Rusbridger writes in his recent op-ed, “not a single member of the ISC has yet murmured any significant disquiet about the existing arrangements for oversight, nor the workings.”

So much for useful oversight.

Headdesk #8:

“In this security space it would be absurdly self-defeating to inform suspects they were under surveillance or tell them how they were. So the authorities cannot be transparent.”

This is non-sequitur and it is nonsense.

Not informing a suspect that they are under surveillance and being transparent aren’t mutually exclusive. Of course you would not inform suspects. The problem is that what the “authorities” are doing is not to inform anyone about how they collect data on everyone (not just suspects) which, I suppose, once again proves the point that we are all suspects.

“So the ISC will have to continue to have private sessions,” Mr Omand said.

Yes, of course, and the Guardian will have to keep reporting on mass surveillance. *headdesk*

End Bulk Access

Enter Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia who counters that “it is nonsense that the debate is hard because things have to be kept secret. We don’t need to know the names of people being targeted, but we do need to know: are you storing all our emails, are you listening to our phone calls?”

Exactly. He also said something else that is rather interesting especially in light of the fact that NSA and GCHQ backdoors have undermined the security of the internet:

“All the criminals Omand mentioned are also trying to spy on us, get our credit card numbers, and so on – so governments should increase and encourage encryption. That defeats their goal of spying on everyone – too bad.”

Wales also said, correctly, that the choice “is not either bulk access to everything or the criminals will run free. You can get information on private communications by going through the proper legal basis – without bulk access.”

Richard J Leon, the federal judge who ruled on Monday that bulk collection of phone records is likely unconstitutional, probably agrees.

But while this and the review panel’s report may be promising first steps and US debate looks much more lively compared to the UK, we should not forget either, that “most polls show about 50% of the [American] population – including a shockingly high percentage of Democrats – find the NSA’s domestic spying programme more or less acceptable.”

What this shows us is that many people clearly have not picked up on “the generalised air of suspicion” that is at the heart of these surveillance programmes. After all, how many of us really have that “sinister feeling of being watched but not knowing when”?

And this is something else that is making my head hurt: realizing how little many people seem to know or understand about these things – and the lack of effort people seem to be making to know and understand them. In the UK more than anywhere else, I am sorry to say.

If there is any doubt in your mind left that surveillance is dangerous to democracy, try this:

“Think back to all the messages you have ever sent. All the phone calls and searches you’ve made. Could any of them be misinterpreted? Could any of them be used to damage you by someone like the next McCarthy, the next Nixon, the next Ashcroft?”

And then make yourself aware that:

“This is the most pernicious and soul-shattering aspect of where we are right now. No one knows for sure what is being collected, recorded, analysed and stored – or how all this will be used in the future.”

And also consider, in this week when it has emerged that NSA and GCHQ are spying on international charities:

“The targeting of the international actors tasked with caring for the most vulnerable people, particularly children, is one of the most distressing revelations yet.”

Is that really the kind of world you want to live in? I don’t. Neither does Edward Snowden who gave up his life to spark a debate that yes, is being held, but still not forcefully enough.

The debate in the UK this week, the court ruling in the US and the review panel’s report are a good start.

But they are only that: a start. To date, people in the UK simply are not aware enough. They are still, as the Observer puts it, too trustful of “the benevolent state”, of a government that keeps showing time and again that it is not very much “on their side” at all.

“Democracy’s real responses to state surveillance,” the Observer argues, “begin on the streets where we live, where we wake up, calculate the risks, and insist on having our say.”

So more of that then, more debate, and – crucially – more awareness. Please, it is crucial.

A week of open letters, awards and questionable offers: surveillance news round-up

“A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.”


 Theresa May to be grilled by MPs

Certainly one of the most interesting pieces of surveillance-related news for me this week was the announcement that UK Home Secretary Theresa May will be facing the same Committee that grilled Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger almost two weeks ago.

The reason for Ms May’s appearance before the Committee is a little bit outrageous. You may recall that the person who was originally asked to give evidence was the head of MI5, Andrew Parker.

I commented last week on why I thought it was odd that Mr Parker should even be given a choice about whether or not to appear before the Committee.

Now Ms May has “rejected [the Home Affairs Select Committee’s] request to cross-examine” Parker altogether, supported in her decision by David Cameron.

No wonder that, Keith Vaz, chair of the HASC (for short), is said to be furious. So am I. Summoning Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger one week, suggesting that he and his paper will be investigated and potentially charged with damaging national security is bad enough.

But allowing the head of MI5 to dodge having to justify his claims that the Guardian has damaged national security shows, among other things, just how little power of oversight or accountability there is when it comes to the shenanigans of the UK spy agencies.

Ms May and Mr Cameron’s move to keep the chief spooks out of the spotlight once again enforces the impression that “everything is being done in the dark. Secret laws, secret interpretations of secret laws by secret courts and no effective parliamentary oversight whatsoever,” as Thomas Drake, Daniel Ellsberg, Katharine Gun, Peter Kofod, Ray McGovern, Jesselyn Radack, Coleen Rowley have written in an open letter this week.

Former whistleblowers: open letter to intelligence employees after Snowden

In this letter, the authors point out the “bitter iron[y] […] that while John Kiriakou (ex-CIA) is in prison for blowing the whistle on US torture, the torturers and their enablers walk free” and WikiLeaks-source Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning was charged with – amongst other serious crimes – aiding the enemy (read: the public)”. Similarly, “[t]he response [to other whistleblowers] was 100% persecution and 0% accountability by both the NSA and the rest of government.”

This seems equally, if not more, true of the UK.

The authors also praise Edward Snowden as someone who has showed others what one person can do and I can only agree with them: “Snowden shouldn’t have to stand alone, and his revelations shouldn’t be the only ones.”


NY Times chief technology officer speaks about his fears when handling the Snowden files

While encouraging whistleblowers, the letter also warns of the danger of retribution so evident in the fates of people like Chelsea Manning.

Also, given the state of affairs and the grilling Mr Rusbridger faced, the New York Times chief technology officer Rajiv Pant may not be entirely wrong to fear retribution for having been involved in the transfer of files from the Guardian to the Times.

CNN reports on this here.

Interestingly, reading more or less between the lines one finds more evidence of the diligence the papers are taking with these documents.


“Remote Exploitation”: NSA and GCHQ piggyback on commercial surveillance software

If you do not clean your computer of cookies regularly, you might want to start doing so.

The Washington Post reports that “NSA and […] GCHQ, are using […] “cookies” that advertising networks place on computers to identify people browsing the Internet.”

And they do not only track your web visits. Rather, they “single out an individual’s communications among the sea of Internet data in order to send out software that can hack that person’s computer”.


Quote of the week: What [the NSA] really needed was a horde of undercover Orcs

This is the news that “NSA and GCHQ collect gamers’ chats and deploy real-life agents into World of Warcraft and Second Life”.

So if you’re a gamer, you might want to be careful because that nice person you are gaming with online but who you have never met face to face might actually be a mole.

I don’t know about you but the “National Security Agency analyst writing a briefing to his superiors” about how “their current surveillance efforts were lacking something” and that “[w]hat [the NSA] really needed was a horde of undercover Orcs” sounds like a bit of a geek to me whose “goal was merely to play computer games at work without getting fired.”

Which kind of endears them to me.

But only for as long as it takes me to remember that this same analyst also probably had “difficulty […] proving terrorists were even thinking about using games to communicate” and that his “particular “vision of spycraft sparked a concerted drive by the NSA and […] GCHQ to infiltrate the massive communities playing online games.”

I am not a gamer but that makes me no less concerned or outraged at the idea of a “high number of different US intelligence agents […] conducting operations inside games” (they needed a “deconfliction” group to ensure they weren’t spying on each other there were so many of them) or at the notion that “games could produce vast amounts of intelligence […] they could be used […] to build pictures of people’s social networks […] and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications.”

I have commented previously on why the capability to “produce vast amounts of intelligence […], to build pictures of people’s social networks through […], and to obtain target identifiers” is a dangerous thing.


More than 500 leading authors speak out against surveillance – so can you

In fact, in another open letter this week, 500 of the world’s leading authors, warn that “spy agencies are undermining democracy” and that “the capacity of intelligence agencies to spy on millions of people’s digital communications is turning everyone into potential suspects.”

“[T]he writers,” the Guardian reports, “call for a digital rights convention that states will sign up to and adhere to.”

Their statement was launched on Tuesday in “27 countries, and organisers hope members of the public will now sign up through the change.org website.”

If you would like to do this, the petition is here.


Silicon valley giants demand sweeping changes to US surveillance

In another move to rein in surveillance, “[t]he world’s leading technology companies have united to demand sweeping changes to US surveillance laws, urging an international ban on bulk collection of data to help preserve the public’s “trust in the internet””.

In yet another open letter, “Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL have […] throw[n] their weight behind radical reforms already proposed by Washington politicians.”

In the letter, the companies “argue foreign governments need to come together to agree new international standards regulating surveillance, hinting at legal disputes and damage to international trade otherwise.”


Snowden to testify in European Parliament via Videolink

Another interesting piece of news that started out as little more than a rumour was confirmed after “the leaders of the main political groupings in the European parliament voted to invite Snowden” to testify via video link.

While this may be a vital step, I fail to be overwhelmed. Much like Germany’s government the European Parliament seems all too happy to accept Mr Snowden’s help but unwilling to help him in return.

Mike Harris of Index on Censorship agrees, accusing the EU (correctly, I think) of failing Snowden, as well as the reporting newspapers and all EU citizens by not standing up forcefully enough for the right to free speech.

I will be interested to know if questions about Mr Snowden’s “current situation in Russia” will finally lead to attempts at granting him asylum in a different European country or whether they will in fact be used to resuscitate once again the accusation that Mr Snowden has passed his material on to Russian intelligence.

Then again, perhaps asylum will not be necessary, as the NSA officer in charge of assessing the damage caused by the Snowden revelations is reported to have said that he might consider a deal of amnesty for Mr Snowden in exchange for a return of the docusments.


NSA may never know the full extent of Snowden’s leaks

The reason for this seems obvious. According to a recent New York Times report, “American intelligence and law enforcement investigators have concluded that they may never know the entirety of what [Mr] Snowden extracted from classified government computers before leaving the United States.”

Personally, what I think this signifies once again is that someone who is “so expertly able to exploit blind spots in the systems of America’s most secretive spy agency” can probably also be trusted to keep the documents safe.

What I also find noteworthy is that “some American officials […] place blame on the security agency for being slow to install software that can detect unusual computer activity carried out by the agency’s work force…”

Now, what’s that supposed to mean: some American officials place blame on the NSA? That is one of the major issues with the response to the NSA revelations right there: the question of how it was even possible for Mr Snowden to abscond with so much classified material (his technical expertise aside) has not be asked insistently enough.

Clearly, security at the NSA is lacking something and while in this case this may be lucky because it enabled Mr Snowden to let us know of things we need to know, it also beckons the question of who else has access to these “highly classified” materials (and entirely without Mr Snowden’s help as well).

The NSA is as anxious as ever to recover these documents, which is precisely why they are now contemplating offering Mr Snowden a deal for their safe return.

I will be interested to see how this plays out in the end.


Edward Snowden: Person of the Year

I apologize for being unable to attend in person, but I’ve been having a bit of passport trouble.”
(Edward Snowden)

As we approach the end of 2013, it is obviously the time to bestow all sorts of end-of-year honours on various different people.

Not a few of these honours have gone to Mr Snowden. Others, tellingly, have not.

As such, Mr Snowden “tops the list of Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers for 2013” – See more about that and read Snowden’s statement on it – including the above quote – here.

Perhaps inevitably, Mr Snowden has also been voted Person of the Year by Guardian readers – and I happily admit to being one of those who voted for him.

This makes 2013 the second year in a row in which a young American whistleblower has been named Person of the Year by the Guardian. Last year, the honour went to Chelsea Manning.

Disappointingly, Time magazine did not follow suit but named Pope Francis it’s POY, even though the New Yorker argued quite convincingly beforehand that the Times’ nod should go to Mr Snowden.

The Switch agrees and argues correctly that if “Time‘s mandate for “Person of the Year” is to choose the person who “most influenced the news this year” they should have chosen Edwards Snowden.

The Daily Beast makes a similarly convincing argument in Mr Snowden’s favour, saying that “there is no topping the radical quality of the Snowden-led rebellion against omniscient rule.”

As for me, I am underwhelmed but not surprised by Time’s choice.

As Popes go, Francis may be quite remarkable. He certainly has some more interesting ideas than his predecessors. Perhaps he “could [even] bring the church into a new relationship with its critics and dissidents”.

Yet, I would argue that the change he can affect or the impact he has had so far, come nowhere near to the impact of Snowden’s revelations or the change that they could affect. And they are not equal in importance either.

Snowden has provided us with the knowledge we need to defend the basic rights and principles our democratic societies are built on. For that his “freedom was radically confined—reduced to the single, world-altering choice to leak or not to leak.”

That is an extraordinary choice and it has led to a long-overdue discussion.

To be fair, a change in attitude within the Catholic Church is long overdue as well but to be honest, I do think that the enthusiasm about this is limited to a certain group of people, namely those who think that whatever an antiquated, patriarchal religious institution does is of much concern in the grander scheme of things.

I am not sure that it is, much though the Catholic Church itself would like to believe it. The world’s population is not simply divided into supporters, critics and dissidents of the Catholic Church. Yes, the Pope and the church may influence a lot of people in the world but I am sure there is also a large number of people who could not care less about what the Pope or the Catholic Church are doing and who do not see their lives as being massively affected by either. I am also not sure that to give further weight to the illusion of Catholic authority is a good thing.

Rather, we should finally embrace the notion that the Catholic faith is just one among many and for that I think we need to stop reaffirming the perceived authority of the head of the Catholic Church.

What we really need to understand is that our (secular) authorities, in democratic states at least, are meant to act in our interest and that we need to be able to hold them to account if they do not. And to that end, Edward Snowden has done us a service that is unsurpassed this year, and that has a much more fundamental effect and significance than anything the head of the Catholic Church could say or do. Mr Snowden’s actions and decisions are herefore well deserving of the honour that Time magazine has regrettably bestowed elsewhere.

The reason I am not surprised by Time’s decision is that, given the attitude of so many of the world’s media towards the Snowden disclosures, Pope Francis certainly must have seemed the safer choice.

Clearly, not everyone agrees with my assessment either. The Wire, for one, argues that “there is nothing remarkable about Snowden [either]. It was the information he exposed that is newsworthy. He is simply the beneficiary of a culture that created him, not an individual who shifted the culture.”

Yet, while Mr Snowden may agree with this assessment, I do not. If someone who gives up his life and freedom to blow the whistle on the surveillance practices of some of the most powerful spy agencies in the world, knowing full well the consequences his actions might have and the adversaries he is standing up against, then that makes him a remarkable person.

If he has shifted the culture remains to be seen but he has certainly shaken it up quite a bit and for that impact alone, if not for what he did to make that impact, he deserves our gratitude, our help and our recognition.

I will not tire of saying it either.

Dear UK MPs and miscellaneous: Sort out your priorities. Now!

Rather than hauling in journalists for questioning and trying to intimidate them, the Commons would do well to encourage and join [the] debate over how the vast electronic intelligence-gathering capabilities of the modern security-state can be employed in a manner that gives up little or nothing to real terrorists and real enemies and skilfully uses all our technological capabilities to protect us, while at the same time taking every possible measure to insure that these capabilities are not abused in a way that would abrogate the rights and privacy of law-abiding citizens.” Carl Bernstein


The Home Affairs Select Committee: consider yourself Rusbridgered

I must say, I switched off my computer on Tuesday, feeling a little bit chuffed on Alan Rusbridger’s behalf.

In the preceding hour, the Guardian editor had to give evidence before the Home Affairs Select Committee (a summary of events is here and of the key exchanges here) in the UK over his (and, bizarrely, other) paper’s Snowden reporting.

Allegations had it that the Guardian had, because of its reporting and the way in which it had handled the Snowden materials, somehow endangered national security.

Mr Rusbridger’s appearance at the session was optional, he was told, although he himself was quick to note that he hadn’t been aware that it was. Still, he was, he said, “happy to be there”.

A video of Mr Rusbridger’s testimony can be found here.

Given the alarming nature and, dare I say it, ridiculousness of the situation, Mr Rusbridger “to his significant credit, kept a cool head throughout”.

In fact, he handled the situation so well that I could not help but feel a little vindicated by the end of it; the editor-in-chief of the paper that broke the Snowden stories in the UK revealed himself, once again, to be a level-headed and sober man, who seemed to have few problems, on this occasion “in justifying his trade”.

However, that does nothing to diminish the seriousness of the charge.

The idea that the Guardian has endangered national security is ludicrous, of course, just as it is outdated. But that will not stop people –MPs even– from repeating it like a mantra.


“Do you love this country?” Nationalism and a free press

Which is also the reason why I didn’t feel that chuffed in the end.

Because “[a]t the heart of the […] questioning of [Mr Rusbridger] was an age-old dispute about the nature of press freedom” and it showed once again that especially in the UK, some people seem to have serious problems either understanding “the theory and practice of a free press” or “even if they accept[…] the theory, [can] not stomach the practice”.

Mr Rusbridger had to answer the same questions over and over again, together with some that were as new to him as they were to the rest of us but no less confusing or exasperating for that.

My personal favourites included chairman Keith Vaz asking if Mr Rusbridger loved “this country”.

“A trick question,” certainly, as Anne Perkins argues, although perhaps well-intentioned: “that lawyerly thing of getting out into the open the answer to the opposition’s charge (the rather hefty one of treason) before the opposition had a chance to put it themselves.”

Perhaps. As the session went on, I did get the impression that Mr Vaz was trying to help Mr Rusbridger get the charge of a lack of patriotism out of the way.

Then again, was that really necessary?

Personally, I am not sure that the question was due or pertinent – and if it was, then perhaps it shouldn’t be.

To me, it bespeaks a confusion over what responsibility for, as opposed to “loving”, one’s country means which I find puzzling.

But then, I have always had trouble with the idea of loving, as Anne Perkins says “inanimate objects” or, in fact, abstract concepts.

This was why I was equally puzzled earlier this year when Edward Snowden, in a Guardian Q&A, said that “the country is worth dying for.”

Now, I don’t know about that.

After all, what is this “country” that you’re supposed to love or die for? Where it is? Which one is it?

As an immigrant (as Mr Vaz seems to consider Mr Rusbridger to be), an expatriate (as I consider myself) or an exile (as Mr Snowden now is), are you supposed to love the country that you were born in but that you have left, or the one that you live in? Can you love both or do you have to make a choice?

Perhaps the answer is obvious to Mr Snowden who, need I say it again, did not choose Russia as his safe haven.

But then, what do I know? The answer certainly isn’t obvious to me.

It seems to me that the idea of a country includes so many things – some of which I love and some of which I decidedly don’t – that my measure of patriotism or nationalism cannot possibly be measured by a simple answer to a generic trick-question.

Anne Perkins says: “I love my country, and quite likely it’s different from yours,” which sums up the difficulties quite nicely.

In the case of Mr Rusbridger, the question seemed to be aimed to find out if Mr Rusbridger loved the UK (the country he lives, works and grew up in) enough to not want to cause it harm.

However, the implicit suggestion that either Mr Rusbridger or the Guardian would, intentionally or not, damage national security is, as said before, a ludicrous one.

As such, Mr Vaz’s question points, once again, to the dangerous idea that to love your country and to want to keep everyone in it safe, you have to willingly surrender some basic rights and liberties – some of which may well be the things that you love most about your country – and to trust (and love?) blindly those who consider themselves to represent “the country”.

Which in this case means the people who run it and staff its agencies – and that absolutely includes the spooks.

Now, I am not saying that the majority of government staffers aren’t good and trustworthy people.

To demand that kind of trust, however, and to accuse those who dare question the trustworthiness of our leaders and their institutions of terrorism is yet another dangerous thing to do.

The ACLU in its reaction to the hearing makes an important point: “Rusbridger was called to task for, and asked to defend, basic principles of Anglo-American governance. Worse, he had to do so in front of the very people who should be doing the defending.”

They hit the nail on the head of course: the government – and this includes the MPs present at the hearing – should be defending the basic principles and civil liberties on which our societies have been built. If they fail to do so, a free press can make us aware of such failures.

Mr Rusbridger said that one of the things he loves about the UK is “that we have that freedom to write, and report, and to think.”

However, given that Mr Rusbridger had to justify his paper’s reporting at all and that the Metropolitan Police Commissioners in their subsequent session before the same committee “refused to rule out prosecutions” of the Guardian or individual journalists “as part of an investigation into the matter” of whether offences had been committed under section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000 that freedom of the press seems to be under threat.

Roy Greenslade quite correctly calls it “remarkable [that] […] [w]ith the British press having obtained the right to its freedom from political control in the 17th century, here was parliament calling a newspaper to account for exercising that freedom.”

This is indeed remarkable and also deeply upsetting. After all, the “business” of a free press “is disclosure. [Their] justification is informing the public. [They] are aware of the consequences of what [they] publish and take steps to avoid causing any possible harm. [They] do so within the context of the law.”

To suggest that they don’t is dangerous not only to the press but also the public who (should be able to) rely on the press for information that allows them to hold their governments to account.

 “[G]overnment is inherently fallible,” the ACLU writes, “even one acting with the best of intentions. Reducing the ability of the public to uncover and report on that fallibility through government control of the press, leads to public ignorance, poor policy outcomes and a fundamental loss of individual liberty.”


Pressure and intimidation

“The Guardian has come under concerted pressure and intimidation designed to stop it from publishing stories of huge public interest”.

Measures of pressure and intimidation have included ““prior restraint,” as well as visits by officials to [Mr Rusbridger’s] office, the enforced destruction of Guardian computer disks with power tools and repeated calls from lawmakers “asking police to prosecute” [t]he Guardian for disclosing the classified material in news articles.”

That pressure and intimidation was evident during the committee hearing as well, with Tory MP Michael Ellis asking the rather absurd question if Mr Rusbridger would have transmitted the Enigma code to the Nazis during World War II had he known it.

The question is a prime example of the lack of proportionality that surrounds so many of the responses to Mr Rusbridger, the Guardian, Mr Snowden, and the decisions made in relation to the Snowden publications.

And not just from the government or the security agencies either.

Rather, I have to agree with Julian Huppert who argues that “[w]hile in America the president has committed himself to a full review of oversight structures, and the UN has launched an investigation into spying practices, in Britain politicians and the press have been distracted by the vehicle, not the content.”

And not just politicians and media either. Following the reaction in the UK, one cannot help thinking that many people in Britain still seem to be “missing the point”:

Mr Huppert also argues that “[w]hen [he] think[s] of terrorists, newspaper editors aren’t the first people who spring to mind” and that “[t]hanks to the work of Alan Rusbridger’s team, key matters of public interest have been raised.”

It is time that these matters were addressed and “hauling” Alan Rusbridger before a House of Commons select committee is not going to help with that. On the contrary. It simply shows that the British government (and, sadly, much of the British media and the British people as well) have their priorities wrong.

Julian Huppert argues correctly that instead of “let[ting] ourselves get caught up in what the Guardian did or did not do”, we must “focus on the wider issues, the core questions of privacy in a digital age. What are the limits of state surveillance? How do we make sure there is proper oversight?”


5 billion mobile phone records daily: what the NSA has been up to

This seems no more true than in the week in which it has also emerged that the NSA is gathering 5 billion mobile phone records daily.

Ironically, in the same week of new revelations on NSA spying and Mr Rusbridger’s testimony, UK “MPs were engaged in a tussle with the head of MI5 over whether the spy chief would give evidence to parliament in public to a Commons select committee”.

I cannot be the only one who thinks it is ludicrous that the head of MI5 would be able to respond like this to a request from the Home Affairs Select Committee (and if legislation allows him to do that, then perhaps legislation needs to be changed).

What he seems to be saying is that he might grace them with their presence but that he will do so at his convenience. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not what proper oversight should look like, is it?

Incidentally, I am also wondering what would have happened if Mr Rusbridger had been aware that his “invitation” was optional and if he had tried to decline.

But I, yet again, digress.

Importantly, things like bulk collection of mobile phone location data and other methods of mass surveillance both by the NSA and GCHQ are things we need to know about.

Shooting the messenger by criminalizing the Guardian would indeed “be shooting ourselves in the foot, if not the face” and failing to acknowledge that the “Guardian has saved the agencies [and the government] from much greater damage and embarrassment” than might have otherwise occurred.

What people fail to acknowledge is that Edward Snowden decided for a reason not to mass-dump his material on the internet. These reasons, amongst other things, included considerations of security.

The Guardian and other publishing news organisations have made their decisions based on the same concerns.

No matter how much some members of the government seem to want to believe otherwise, none of these organisation has ever published any names (an accusation repeatedly laid before Mr Rusbridger on Tuesday) and “the files sent to the New York Times [by the Guardian] [have] not been compromised.”

At no point during the reporting, Mr Rusbridger repeatedly said, had the Guardian lost control of any of the material provided to the paper by Mr Snowden.

He also said that the Guardian “would not be put off by intimidation, but nor are we going to behave recklessly”. We should hope so.

We should also hope that the British government gets its priorities sorted as soon as possible and that it starts looking at the content of the Snowden files rather than the (flawless) conduct of the messenger.

As of now, it seems that oversight programmes are disturbingly weak and the most recent revelation that the NSA is collecting mobile phone location data on a massive scale will –and should– not do anything to ease anyone’s mind.

After all, as The Washington Post has revealed, “[t]he [NSA] is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world […],enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.”

Remember what I said only last week about how scary that kind of thing is?

It just keeps getting scarier: “In scale, scope and potential impact on privacy, the efforts to collect and analyse location data may be unsurpassed among the NSA surveillance programs that have been disclosed since June.”

“Analysts can find cellphones anywhere in the world, retrace their movements and expose hidden relationships among the people using them […] tracking people from afar into confidential business meetings or personal visits to medical facilities, hotel rooms, private homes and other traditionally protected spaces.”

Make no mistake: what this means is that the spooks can know where you are, when you are, with who you are and, basically, what you are doing at any given point in space and time, and the only way of avoiding that seems to be to chuck away your mobile and go live in a cave.

And they do not minimize that data, either. They store it or, as Jesselyn Raddack puts it, they “build[…] additional storage facilities (costing billions of taxpayer dollars) to save it for a rainy day – potentially years later – when some government official decides a previously “innocent” person is now a suspect.”

Now, what was it that Edward Snowden said in that memorable very first interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in June? He said:

“You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

In this context note that, in October NSA chief Keith Alexander “disclosed in Senate testimony […] that the NSA had run a pilot project in 2010 and 2011 to collect “samples” of U.S. cellphone location data.”

Mr Alexander insisted at the time that “[t]he data collected were never available for intelligence analysis purposes, and the project was discontinued because it had no “operational value”.”

How about that then? And more importantly: who is lying?

The New Yorker puts it this way: “if the director of the agency, General Keith Alexander, says in testimony before the Senate that “the N.S.A. does not collect locational information under section 215 of the Patriot Act,” it does collect it, just maybe under a different section, or with no real authority at all.”


An issue on which responsible people cannot differ

It may give us some hope that Ben Emmerson QC, he UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, has announced “an investigation that will culminate in a series of recommendations to the UN general assembly next autumn.”

He also writes, importantly, that “there is […] one issue on which I do not think reasonable people can differ, and that is the importance of the role of responsible media in exposing questions of public interest” and that “the astonishing suggestion that this sort of journalism can be equated with aiding and abetting terrorism needs to be scotched decisively.”

“It is the role of a free press,” Mr Emmerson continues, “to hold governments to account.”

“When it comes to assessing the balance that must be struck between maintaining secrecy and exposing information in the public interest […] [t]his isn’t [a borderline case]. It’s a no-brainer. The Guardian’s revelations are precisely the sort of information that a free press is supposed to reveal.”

Mr Emmerson is right; it is a no-brainer. It is “unwise and counterproductive to react to the reporting on disclosures from Edward Snowden by reflexively invoking security concerns to silence the press.”

It is ludicrous, not to mention dangerous. And it is of fundamental importance that the British government understands that its actions put “press freedom itself is under attack in Britain”.

More than that, “these actions do more than damage Britain’s international reputation as a defender of press freedom; they “provide encouragement to non-democratic regimes to justify their own repressive actions.” They undermine globally the essential independence of the press.”

To conclude, an admission: I love this country, the UK. That is, I love “my” UK and everything that it means to me. I want it and everyone in it to be safe. But for that safety, a free press is essential.

In an open letter to Alan Rusbridger, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein writes:

“it is essential that no prior governmental restraints or intimidation be imposed on a truly free press; otherwise, in such darkness, we encourage the risk of our democracies falling prey to despotism and demagoguery and even criminality by our elected leaders and government officials.”

Calling for a prosecution of the Guardian risks adding to the dangers to this and other countries and their people, not removing them.

It seems that we need to ask ourselves if “our public servants […] have forgotten whom they serve” and call on them, quickly and emphatically, to get their priorities sorted.