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.


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