Defending fundamental freedoms; the challenge of a generation?

Glasgow University’s new rector: I give you Edward Snowden

It has been a bit of a strange week, hasn’t it?

There was Edward Snowden’s election as rector of Glasgow University. Certainly a victory – and one that has left Mr Snowden “humbled” – it was not favourably received by everyone.

“I’m all for political statements,” one of the students witnessing the outcome of the election said, “but at a time when the university and students need the biggest say with all the cuts it’s just in­appropriate not to have a working rector.”

In some ways, perhaps, a valid concern, even though Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, suggested that “with encrypted communications, [Mr Snowden] can do a lot for [the students]. He was just taken onto the board for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. It may take a little technology but I’ll think you’ll find he has a lot to say on the issues of the day.

A lot to say, certainly. Yet it does remain to be seen how much Mr Snowden can actively contribute to his new post. However, the election was clearly intended as a political statement and as such, it will hopefully carry some weight, even though it has also prompted some reactions that are, frankly, more than a bit off the mark.

The daftest (there is no other word for it, I am afraid) response certainly came from Michael Scheuer, a professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University in the US, who said that Mr Snowden’s election as rector “goes to show the failure of the education system in teaching the importance of patriotism and loyalty […]. It strikes me as showing the naivety of students”.

I cannot even begin to count the ways in which this statement is upsetting. More than anything it goes to show the arrogance of Mr Scheuer, as well as a warped idea of patriotism and loyalty that has been worrying me for a long time.

For one thing, Mr Scheuer’s views are grounded in a view of reality that completely ignores the fact that there is still no evidence of any actual damage done to national security in the US or Britain by the Snowden revelations.

By contrast, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal agency established on the recommendation of the Sept. 11 Commission to balance the right to liberty against the need to prevent terrorism, in a recent report concluded that it had

“not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” Members of the board also noted that they were “aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

For another, in repeating that if Mr Snowden’s motives had been honest, he would come home to face trial, Mr Scheuer chooses to remain ignorant of the many times it has been made clear that for Mr Snowden to return to the US would be a very bad idea indeed. And yes, that absolutely includes clemency or plea bargain scenarios. I, for one, stand by my assessment that, given the extremely vengeful sentiments expressed by some members of the IC, a return to the US would not be a safe bet for Mr Snowden.

That Mr Scheuer’s views are grounded in unproven hysterics and jingoism rather than realistic assumptions is evident in his idea that he “tend[s] to think [Edward Snowden] may way have been working for the Russians all along.”

Excuse me while I take a moment to go away and cry in despair.

Patriotism, loyalty, jingoism… intelligence?

Yet even if we ignore the fact that all Mr Scheuer does is repeat unfounded allegations and baseless suspicion, his arrogance in denouncing the Scottish education system as a failure is just as worrying and, frankly, downright infuriating.

It bespeaks the idea that necessarily all of Scotland should share Mr Scheuer’s views about “patriotism and loyalty” and that anyone who doesn’t is really a bit naïve.

Pardon me for disagreeing on every single count. I am reluctant to even venture into the patriotism and loyalty territory as for me these terms seem to be used more often than not as a final means of ending an argument by people that do not like to be argued with.

But if talk about it we must, then I would argue that neither patriotism, nor loyalty have anything to do with allowing people’s rights and liberties to be kicked in the dust.

On the contrary, I would argue – with Mr Snowden, I believe – that patriotism and loyalty have a lot to do with upholding and protecting the values that a country was founded on, and proclaims to stand for.

Thus, who is the greater and more loyal patriot: the person who closes their eyes to wrongdoing in the name of security, or the person who stands up – at great personal risk and cost – to speak out in favour of the values that a society cherishes? Yes, the question is rhetorical and the answer obvious. It has also been discussed and put forward frequently over the past months but then, it seems that even though we discuss it ad nauseam, proponents of the opposite view – that patriotism equals blind and unquestioning loyalty – are entirely reason-proof. Scott Ludlam certainly isn’t wrong when he argues that “[w]e urgently need to raise the IQ of the debate here.”

This in relation to Australia where Edward Snowden has been denounced as a traitor to his country (i.e. the US) by Australia’s foreign minister and others.

Perhaps the election of Edward Snowden as rector of one of the oldest universities in the world will finally help us raise the IQ of the debate.

Edward Snowden won the election by a wide margin. More than that, a much larger-than-previous number of students turned out to vote – hence, the issues raised with Mr Snowden’s help obviously mean something to the students of Glasgow University.

Mr Snowden’s supporters point out that his election is in line with a “tradition of making significant statements through [Glasgow University’s] rectors.”

“[T]oday,” students said, “we have once more championed this idea by proving to the world that we are not apathetic to important issues such as democratic rights. Our opposition to pervasive and immoral state intrusion has gone down in the records. What is more, we showed Edward Snowden and other brave whistleblowers that we stand in solidarity with them, regardless of where they are. In the following weeks we will continue to campaign for the NSA and GCHQ to cease their assault on our fundamental right to privacy and for Edward Snowden to be recognised as the courageous whistleblower he is, rather than a traitor.”

This, rather than the election of an acting rector, seems to have been the true motivation behind the campaign and the final vote, and in light of recent events the importance of such a statement cannot be highlighted enough.

Detention, detention, detention… lawyers, journalists, attorney-client privilege

After all, this has also been a week that has seen more worrying developments with regard to a free press and human rights.

As such, this week the UK High Court ruled that the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow airport last year was lawful and justified.

This only a few days after whistleblower and human rights lawyer Jesselyn Radack was also detained Heathrow airport.

More than that, it has emerged that a US lawfirm was caught up in the NSA dragnet – attorney-client privilege, I believe, being a decisive problem here, “lawyers in the United States with clients overseas have expressed growing concern that their confidential communications could be compromised by such surveillance.

Incidentally, this particular case also demonstrates once again that US mass surveillance is by no means limited to counter-terrorism.

And these are just the examples that have emerged most recently. The catalogue of violations that we have become aware of thanks to Edward Snowden is, as we all know, much larger.

They include undermining internet encryption, industrial espionage, targeting charities, PMs and the EU, and attacks on hacktivists to recall but a few.

And yet people continue to get caught up in debates about whether or not Mr Snowden’s character is questionable, whether or not he is a foreign asset, whether or not he is a traitor.

Actually, judgement of Mr Snowden’s character should have no bearing on the way the substance of his revelations is approached. The documents that have been disclosed reveal a series of abuses that need to be scrutinised and investigated. This is true whether Mr Snowden is of questionable character or not.

There is a reason why the NSA, GCHQ or other spy agencies should have unlimited powers, and why there need to be working systems of oversight in place.

Take Australia as an example. Scott Ludlam writes that

The first thing you discover when you dig into the laws of warranted telecommunications intercepts in Australia is how rigorous they are. Previous generations of legislators enacted a dense mesh of checks and balances, judicial oversight, and fine-grained annual reporting to keep these powers in check. For this reason among others, Australia is not a police state.

However, he continues:

“[I]n the last decade or so, this warranted interceptions regime has been utterly wormholed, circumvented to the point of obsolescence […] The legal protections that apply to agencies wanting to listen in on your phone call are completely void when it comes to mapping your social networks, financial habits, medical conditions, and precise location everywhere you take your phone. Intelligence agencies do not have to conform to even these restrictions, and deploy the “national security” trump card to justify remaining entirely outside freedom of information laws or the reporting obligations that other agencies have to deal with. Now “national security” is used to justify anything…”

This anything ranges from industrial espionage to the pointless detainment and interrogation of journalists and human rights lawyers – practices that have very little to do with counter-terrorism and a lot to do with “intimidat[ing] the journalists [and now also lawyers] working on [the Snowden] story and deter future disclosures” by equating things like journalism, activism and political dissent with terrorism and then, yes, playing the national security trump card.

If that in itself isn’t worrying enough, consider – as a side-note if you will – that Lord Justice Laws, who ruled against David Miranda this week, does not believe “that journalists “have a role in a democratic state to scrutinise action by government“.

Essentially, by ruling David Miranda’s detention as lawful, the UK High Court has legitimized what it itself recognized as an “indirect interference with press freedom”, arguing that – this is my favourite bit – there was “no perceptible foundation” for the suggestion that [Miranda and Greenwald] were not putting national security or lives at risk by possessing the material.

Well, the argument cuts both ways: there is no perceptible foundation, either, for the suggestion that they were putting national security at risk.

Justice Laws’ assessment seems to rely rather heavily on evidence “from Oliver Robbins, the deputy national security adviser at the Cabinet Office, that the material was likely to cause very great damage to security interests and possible loss of life,” i.e. on an individual’s assessment rather than proven fact. Note also that Robbins did not say that the material did cause damage – nor did he provide evidence of that – but that it was “likely to”.

And as if that wasn’t enough, I am not sure how much we can trust the ruling of a man who, in an unrelated but relevant case, admitted to being “quite unable to see that any … principle prohibits the Secretary of State from relying … on evidence … which has or may have been obtained by torture by agencies of other states over which he has no powers of direction“.

Excuse me, but just in how many ways is that latter statement wrong and how worrying is it that a British judge in the 21st century is unable to see any principle under which the use of information obtained by torture (no matter who did the torturing) is unacceptable?

I think it is fair to say that unless we do something about not only what Edward Snowden has revealed but also about what the response to it by some the most powerful people in our countries says about their attitudes to our values, rights and liberties (a clue: contempt is the word), we may sooner or later find ourselves in dire straits.

Or, as Edward Snowden said:

If we do not contest the violation of the fundamental right of free people to be left unmolested in their thoughts, associations, and communications – to be free from suspicion without cause – we will have lost the foundation of our thinking society.

This is but one of the reasons why the election of Edward Snowden as Glasgow University’s new rector makes a far more important statement than people like Mr Scheuer would like to dismiss it as.

In a country where press freedom is at risk and where the debate about surveillance has been far too subdued, it is but one way of showing solidarity with someone who has enabled a discussion that is badly needed to preserve our thinking society.

More fundamentally, the election itself shows that, thankfully, this society has not quite stopped thinking yet.

It is a way of “proving to the world that [people are not] apathetic to important issues such as democratic rights”.

In his statement in response to his election, Mr Snowden said:

The defence of this fundamental freedom [to be left unmolested in their thoughts, associations, and communications – to be free from suspicion without cause] is the challenge of our generation, a work that requires constructing new controls and protections to limit the extraordinary powers of states over the domain of human communication.

In a week that was once again seen both the serious threat to these freedoms and the lack of controls and limitations, the students Glasgow University have stated clearly that they, just like Edward Snowden, are ready to take up that challenge.

All that is lacking now is for more of us to join them.


Edward Snowden elected rector of Glasgow University

Students of Glasgow University, this one is for you!

Today you have taken a stand against mass surveillance, for democracy and Edward Snowden by electing him as your rector.

As the BBC reports, “Mr Snowden received 3,124 votes in the first round and 3,347 in the second.”

The gesture is awesome and deserving of the respect of Mr Snowden’s supporters around the world as it expresses your, the students’, readiness to visibly “oppose mass surveillance and intrusion to our private lives”.

The result of the ballot demonstrates that you “stand in solidarity”, and that you “believe whistleblowers should be honoured and they’re heroes rather than traitors.” It is all the more meaningful in light of how Mr Snowden’s actions and disclosures have been received in the UK, where debate has been limited, where the Guardian and its editor have “come under pressure and intimidation“, and where very recently human rights lawyer Jesselyn Radack was detained and aggressively interrogated at Heathrow airport.

Mr Snowden said that he was “humbled by and grateful to the students of Glasgow University for this historic statement in defence of our shared values”. (Read the full statement on the “Edward Snowden for Rector” Facebook page.)

Today, you, the students at Glasgow University, have made it clear that you are not willing to stand silently by and watch while people’s liberties and rights come under threat. I, for one, have nothing but the deepest respect for, and solidarity with, this decision! You are an example to us all.

Stolen passwords, trickery and foreign assets…? I’m with Snowden on that one.


Imagine, you were a big government agency with formidable powers and resources.

Imagine, you were using these resources not only to – as you claim or make yourself believe – protect the people in your country but also to further your government’s economic and diplomatic interests. To do this, you use practices that are at best morally questionable and at worst unconstitutional and unlawful. Yet, you don’t have much to fear for doing it because everything you do is so secret that no one can find out about it. You hide behind a convenient notion of “classified information”. And if that doesn’t work you frighten people by maintaining that if you tell them what is really going on behind those curtains of yours, “the terrorists” will win.

People who do try and tell others about it, you make out as traitors, endorsers or collaborators of terrorists, or spies of foreign powers. They are persecuted and prosecuted under one antiquated law and another more recent law that came into force – and was then subsequently altered to your advantage – in the wake of a terrible incident that frightened the people in your country so much that they thought it was a good idea to give up some of their liberties and rights in favour of security. It doesn’t matter to you that you never actually asked them if they were ready to do that.



Now imagine, someone came along and blew the lid off it all. He let the people know what you were doing and dared ask the question whether or not this was right or lawful and whether the people should actually have a conversation about these practices that so clearly and adversely affected them.

What would you do? What would the government do? Admit to wrongdoing? Welcome these disclosures that provide a chance of speaking openly about what is going wrong?  Surrender some of your power to liberty and democracy and the rights of your people?

Probably not.

Rather, I’d imagine, you would deny many of the charges. You would claim that the story has been told wrong, that is has been misreported. You would maintain that you were acting strictly within the law but that you have difficulty proving that because any proof would, pretty quickly, touch that classified information you hold so sacred.

You would also try to acquire the person who blew the whistle on you. You and your government would exert all your power, all your leverage to get that person back, resulting in some major diplomatic fall-outs.

Yet, that person remains elusive. Someone you really do not like very much sticks a finger in your eye and refuses to turn that person over.

Internationally, the person is getting increased attention and support with more and more people speaking out in their defense, asking for them to be protected, watching closely what will become of them and how you are conducting yourself.

Now, even if you did acquire this person, there would be a lot of attention around the world as to how they would be treated. Not that this would bother you particularly if you managed to put them on trial because the last person you arrested got attention too – if perhaps not quite so much – and they still spent months in solitary confinement, only to be sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The fact that this person, this whistleblower that eludes you now, was able to outsmart your considerable powers and keep you guessing for months as so how they did it or exactly what information they took from you, smarts. The fact that you cannot get your hands on them irks you.

And these things simply will not go away. This time, you cannot easily put out the multiple fires that keep erupting, no matter how much you and your friends try. You coax, you intimidate, you bully – it doesn’t really work.

People still want to know about what you were doing, they want to have a conversation rather badly. You tell them that this would endanger their security but many of them are willing to take that risk and anyway, you cannot really back that claim up with any concrete evidence.

By and by, it emerges that the people at the top of your organizational structure are in themselves liabilities because they have done questionable, if not unlawful, things. Your reputation thus tarnished and with increasing protest against you, and your government, you would probably try to tarnish the reputation of the person who told on you in turn.

You would try over and over again to make him appear a spy, a traitor, a felon, a cheater, someone who is a hopeless narcissist, craving public attention – one of the “bad guys” that people need to be protected from.

You say he was “cultivated” by a foreign power but, again, you fail to back that claim up with any concrete evidence.

This goes on for some time. Increasingly, opinion turns against you. People who were formerly merely skeptical or even indulging of your position become more critical. They demand answers.

Others keep demanding protection for the person that has made them aware of what you are doing. They award them prizes, they even nominate them for a Nobel Peace Prize they call them “hero” and “whistleblower”, asking that he be offered clemency, a pardon, safety.

You realize that perhaps you have been outdone. You may have underestimated this person, the public response, and you may just have overestimated you own influence.

You need evidence that this person is not what people believe them to be. You need it not only to make this go away and to justify keeping your powers.

You also need it to justify yourself because, on top of it all, it looks like this is a massive security mess-up on your own part.

In short, you need to make yourself look good again and them bad.

So you produce the evidence. Or so you say.


You are the NSA.

In this scenario at least. And that person who is such a stone in your show is of course Edward Snowden. Whistleblower Edward Snowden, I might add. Not Russian or Chinese spy, password stealer Edward Snowden who could not possibly have absconded with troves of evidence of your wrongdoing all by himself, as even the FBI maintains, and therefore had to steal other people’s passwords.

Clearly, you say, he must have done. How could he have obtained all this information alone, with a webcrawler no less? Surely, he had help. And since he did, surely that means that his motives are questionable: either he had help from a foreign power, in which case he is a spy, or he tricked people into giving them their passwords to allow himself access to parts of your system that he would not normally have been able to access. Which makes him a liar and a cheat.

For months you have been saying this. For months he has been denying it. For months, you have produced no evidence.

And then, suddenly, just when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (allegedly a felon for lying to Congress) has said that security at your end really was a bit shit, suddenly that evidence appears.

An internal memo published by NBC news maintains that Edward Snowden tricked at least one co-worker out of their password. That co-worker and two other employees have since been made to leave. So you say. You do not name that co-worker. You do not name any of the other people. The memo – the only evidence to support these allegations – is “sketchy”.


Double Standards

The memo says that “[t]hree NSA affiliates have been implicated in this matter: an NSA civilian employee, an active duty military member and a contractor. The civilian employee recently resigned from employment at NSA.”

You say that this is part of “steps that the National Security Agency (NSA) has taken to assign accountability related to the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by former contractor Edward Snowden”.

What you do not say is what exactly you mean by “assigning accountability”.

What you do not say is “we are still trying to find out how this could have happened.”

What you are saying is “we are telling you how this happened, and we expect you to believe us.”

Now, pardon me if I am not quite convinced.

To me, this does not sound as if you were “disciplining people for allowing breaches of security to happen”, i.e. taking responsibility for want went wrong under your own roof, but rather as if you were making an “effort to find people to take the fall for something the agency did not prevent from happening.”

Note that former whistleblower William Binney has explained that “NSA never developed and implemented technology in order to have the capabilities to track activities by employees on the agency’s systems.”

The reason is interesting: “The analysts “realized that what that would be doing is monitoring everything they did and assessing what they were doing. They objected. They didn’t want to be monitored” and have their privacy violated.

So, NSA analysts are having problems with their privacy being violated but, NSA, you demand of the rest of us that we should happily give up our privacy in the service of national security.

It is this kind of double standard, amongst other things, that makes what you say appear just a little bit fabricated to suit your own ends.

In light of your inability to acquire Edward Snowden, or to stop your failures from being discussed, you are now assigning blame by proxy.

You may consider yourself lucky because some of the media, like Time, the Daily Mail (no surprises there) of course NBC who scooped the memo and even Reuters are lapping it up quite readily, reporting your accusations (for this is what they are) as fact, even though these claims are based entirely on something you say, something you have written to Congress.

Some articles reflect that: “The unnamed civilian employee who worked with Snowden resigned last month after the government revoked his security clearance, according to a letter that NSA legislative director Ethan L. Bauman sent this week to the House Judiciary Committee. A military employee and a private contractor also lost their access to NSA data as part of the continuing investigation by the FBI, Bauman said” (emphases added).

It goes on in this way: “Baumann said…”, “Bauman said….”, “Baumann said….” Exposing these allegations for what they actually are: hearsay.

To be fair, some reports reflect a more balanced view. The Washington Post for example offers arguments made by both sides, and Reuters reporters who broke the original password story last November.

Yet many of the media never bother to question for a second that someone who has been telling untruths since before the start of this whole affair might not be being truthful now. They do not question this so-called “evidence” of yours, even though there is more than enough reason to do so. NBC itself calls the memo “sketchy”.

Also, “there is virtually no evidence in this memo that these people being held responsible for the NSA actually had any role in helping Snowden.

More than that, what the media that so readily report this as fact, fail to recognize – yet again – are experiences of former whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, who reminds us that “I had people pressured by NSA into making up stuff (including statements) about me and my character and obtaining information as well as purloining and stealing documents from NSA for the purposes of disclosing them to people”—reporters—”not authorized to receive them.

Like Snowden, Drake says that he “I acted alone without any ‘help.’”

Similarly, Snowden’s supporters have voiced their scepticism, if not outright disbelief, at these allegations: Glenn Greenwald tweeted on Thursday: “there’s no reason to be the slightest bit skeptical about a memo prepared by the NSA about Snowden & intended for public release #USMedia.”

Similarly, Jesselyn Radack, of the Government Accountability project and a staunch supporter of Edward Snowden, tweeted:  #NSA says #Snowden stole ppl’s pswords #Snowden denies it Ahem, who has been consistently lying throughout this saga?

Thomas Drake has called into question the content and intention of the memo; “Clear NSA wants to strip #Snowden of any w’blower disclosure or public interest defense & say he did not act alone.”

We have all seen some of the powers the NSA has, or the lengths to which it is willing to use them. Now it seems that it “is simply choosing to believe that Snowden did not act alone. They are demonstrating something called confirmation bias.” They are looking for and manufacturing evidence to “prove” their allegations.” Or, by the simple act of forcing people out of the agency, they are creating the perception that those people played a role in Snowden’s act.”

Note that these are implications which disregard “the conclusions of the FBI’s own investigators” that Snowden did act alone.

Much of the media fails to take this into account.

If they do take it into account, they suggest that Mr Snowden is lying – an idea that fits in nicely, of course, with the image of him as a spy or foreign asset that they are trying to portray:

US media—with a few exceptions—seem content with amplifying or reprinting baseless allegations and tantalizing innuendo that can mostly be traced back to one individual, Rep. Mike Rogers, who clearly has some kind of vendetta against Snowden because he has repeatedly forced him to address the issue of oversight of the NSA—a concept in government which appears to be personally outrageous to him.

I suppose the idea of Mr Snowden being a devious and lying spy rather than a principled whistleblower makes for more interesting news reporting. It also give the media an excuse to, once again, not talk about what Mr Snowden has revealed.

Edward Snowden himself has not yet commented on these most recent allegations, even though his lawyer, Ben Wizner, has said that he might do so soon.

What he did say in response to a similar Reuters report that surfaced last November, was: “the Reuters report that put this out there was simply wrong. I never stole any passwords, nor did I trick an army of co-workers.

And here is why I believe Mr Snowden: because so far I have seen no reasons not to believe him. On the other hand, I have ample reason not to believe the NSA.

They have every reason to paint Mr Snowden in an unfavourable light, not only to divert attention away from the shortcomings of their own security but also to potentially undermine Mr Snowden’s public interest defence and make him out as something other than a whistleblower.

A lot of what the NSA has said has turned out not to be true.

Yet so far, as far as we know, everything that Mr Snowden has said has turned out to be true.

It is like David Bromwich has written: having watched the interviews with Mr Snowden several times, having read his statements and his answers to people’s questions, I “have [not only] been impressed by the calm and coherence of the mind [they] reveal[…].”

Being of a slightly suspicious nature at the best of times, I have been waiting for Mr Snowden to somehow incriminate himself. To say something I cannot agree with, that sounds questionable in my leftie-liberal ears.

At that, so far, I have failed. Mr Snowden’s profile indeed seems to differ “from that of the spy or defector” in that he does “not think in secret”.

There are no irregularities to his account, at least none that I can see. And even if he has views that I certainly don’t share, it is obvious to me that his reasoning behind these views is sound.

I do not believe Edward Snowden to be a liar or a cheat. I do not believe he tricked his co-workers.

I do not believe the NSA would treat him differently than they treated other whistleblowers before him – they have already shown they don’t. This convenient and sketchy memo says more about the NSA and their tactics than it does about Mr Snowden.

I don’t know about you but to convince me, the spooks have to do better than that.

I still believe Edward Snowden.

Imagine that.

#TheDayWeFightBack: Taking action against mass surveillance


“This is one useful activity, among many others we’ll need to try. Let’s not allow realism to turn to despair, meanwhile. The stakes are too high.”

Today is the day people around the world take a stand against mass surveillance! The importance of this cannot be stressed enough!

Mass surveillance of the kind that is carried out by the NSA and GCHQ endangers everybody’s civil rights and liberties! It potentially violates domestic laws, international law, the US constitution, and rights enshrined in the International Declaration of Human Rights.

Mass surveillance is potentially dangerous to political dissent. It is dangerous to democracy.

Over the past months, it has emerged that it is not merely about counter-terrorism but about political and economic spying, social control, diplomatic manipulation, power.

It endangers the internet itself as a democratic platform of free speech and expression.

This needs to stop. Surveillance needs to be reined in by the law, it needs to be placed under proper oversight. People who have committed violations need to be held accountable, as do governments.

Today, 11th February, has been named #TheDayWeFightBack. It is to be a day of protest against mass surveillance the world over. It may only be one step amongst many, just “one useful activity… we’ll need to try” but let us not not pass up this opportunity of voicing our dismay at what is being done against us in our name. We need to have a debate about this and for that we need to make ourselves heard.

Edward Snowden leaked a trove of classified documents precisely to that purpose: to let us know about what was going on in secret so that we could speak about it and make an informed choice as to whether or not we want this to continue.

Below are some links to websites, petitions, events that are taking place today. I will keep adding as the day goes on. Have a look, spread the word, and feel free to add you own links by commenting on this post! Take a stand. Fight back.

Official Website: #TheDayWeFightBack – Lists international events. Suggests ways of taking part.

Open Rights Group: Don’t Spy On Us: UK based – calls for “an independent inquiry into UK surveillance to report before the General Election” and “a new law that will fundamentally reform the way GCHQ carries out mass surveillance”. Show your support here.

Stop Watching Us – the Video

Statement on Google Public Policy Blog

If our governments are failing us, then – sorry – so are we

This week for me has been about failure, really.

Once again, the obvious failure of some – in fact, most – Western governments to respond to the NSA affair in an appropriate way. That is, a way that doesn’t involve sticking their heads in the sand or making believe that, given time, things will go back to the pre-Snowden status quo.

But sadly also about our own, that is the people’s failure. Our failure to protest, to hold our governments to account, to exercise our democratic rights and make ourselves aware of our democratic responsibilities.

We have elected these people and too many of us don’t seem to realise that democratic responsibility does not end after Election Day, even though those elected would like to think it does.

David Bromwich in his excellent essay on Edward Snowden which I shared earlier today writes:

“[E]ven as [Edward Snowden] went to work and made use of his privileged access, he felt a degree of remorse at the superiority he enjoyed over ordinary citizens, any of whom might be subject to exposure at any moment by the eye of the government he worked for. The remorse (if this surmise is correct) came not from a suspicion that he didn’t deserve the privilege, but from the conviction that no one deserved it. And yet, the drafters of the new laws, and the guardians of the secret interpretation of those laws, do feel that they deserve the privilege; and if you could ask them why, they would answer: because there are elections.”

The analysis is pertinent, don’t you think? In the promises our elected leaders fail to keep after almost every single election we see their sense of entitlement, their belief that they suddenly deserve privileges that may include actually working against us if they see fit.

In letting them get away with it, we are failing ourselves and our democracy. In allowing them to get re-elected we are failing.

By not turning up to vote, by not making ourselves heard, we are allowing a minority to decide and we are handing the power to people who care more about keeping that power than they do about democracy, responsibility, even decency.

That is why I don’t agree with Russell Brand when he implies that voting is pointless because the system isn’t working. The current system may not be flawless but by keeping silent we are allowing it to be ruled by its flaws rather than its possibilities.

What has made me so acutely aware not only of the governments’ but also ours, the electorate’s, failure this week are events in Germany and the UK.

You see, in Germany, there is at least some protesting going on. Some of the people over there are trying to take their government to court for its failure of standing up for their rights, for its alleged collaboration in the infringement of those rights.

In the UK, none of that. In the UK, a prime minister who expresses satisfaction that the people are “unmoved”.

I have lamented this before but it seems I have to lament it again. Because it is not less, but more worrying now. For if the PM is right, then not only is the government failing us: we are failing ourselves.

Germany: Chaos Computer Club submits criminal complaint against German government

Germany has seen some NSA/GCHQ action this week.

For one thing, it emerged that, following his refusal to follow George W. Bush the Younger into the Iraq war, the NSA started tabbing former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s phone. I do not think anyone is surprised anymore. The reason I mention this is that it is another titbit of information in the stream of ongoing revelations. And also because it goes to show what happens if you say no to the US: you end up on the NSA’s list of surveillance targets. If you are the leader of a sovereign democracy that is. The rest of us are on the list anyway.

Thus probably more interesting is the news that Germany-based hacker collective the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), together with the International League for Human Rights and electronic civil-liberties watchdog Digitalcourage, has submitted a criminal complaint to federal prosecutors against the entire German government, “for allegedly breaking the law by aiding foreign spies”.

The claim maintains that “Chancellor Angela Merkel, her government and security officials tolerated and even helped members of the U.S. National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ to spy on German citizens.

I openly admit that this fills me with a sort of self-righteous glee, not only because “it demonstrates unwillingness by some [people in Germany] to drop the issue.

Personally, I have been in fits about Merkel’s failure to stand up for her electorate for months now. Her gutless strategy of avoiding conflict in the face of blatant abuses has caused her to waste Germany’s potential as one of the leading countries in Europe. It has failed the German people, people within the EU and yes, also very much Edward Snowden. This, now, is just Merkel’s proverbial chickens coming home and all that.

Now, Edward Snowden. Obviously, the CCC and its co-complainants have “called for [him] to be brought to Germany as a witness in espionage investigations”. (This just in: Austria’s Der Standard reports (in German) that Mr Snowden has agreed to testify before the EU Internal Affairs Committee in March – probably by videolink.) Needless to say that I whole-heartedly support the idea. Also needless to say that there is fat chance of Snowden being given asylum in Germany.

After all, “filing the complaint with the Federal Prosecutor General is only a first step in the cumbersome German legal process and does not guarantee that an investigation will be opened”.

Which is why “Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert” was keen to point out “that every German citizen had the right to file such a complaint.” He then “declined to comment further.

As of Monday, when the complaint was made, “Germany’s federal prosecutor is considering if there is enough evidence to warrant a formal, criminal investigation into the German government’s alleged involvement in the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) data collection program,” noting that “it wouldn’t be the first [complaint of this kind but] declining to reveal how many complaints related to the NSA affair the federal prosecution had received.

And even if Germany’s federal prosecutor were to launch an investigation, that doesn’t mean they would call Edward Snowden as a witness, let alone offer him witness protection. Too precious is the “friendship” with the US to risk it over something as inconsequential as the rights of a young whistleblower or, indeed, the German public.

Yes, I am becoming increasingly cynical about this government – and the whole wretched affair – by the day.

What may be one silver lining is that in Germany, like in the US, there seem to be people who will not let this go away quietly, as the government seems to hope it would. (The other silver lining remain, of course, Edward Snowden himself and the reporting journalists who will not let this go away quietly either).

At least here seem to be people trying to hold the government to account for what is a failure to protect the interests and rights of the people it governs, and who realise that it will not do for the “rest of us [to] sacrifice [our] ideals to fit in […or to] negotiate quietly to maintain an uneasy distance from [the system] and then go about our own business.”

Not so in the UK, it seems, about whose government I am even more cynical. The problem is, I am now becoming cynical about people as well.

United Kingdom #1: The chilling exploits of GCHQ

This week, more news of GCHQ deviousness emerged, as the UK’s spy agency was reported to have “disrupted “hacktivist” communications by using one of their own techniques against them”: a “denial of service attack […] to force a chatroom used by the Anonymous collective offline”.

This reportedly happened in 2011, and the attack is suspected to have “also interrupted the web communications of political dissidents who did not engage in any illegal hacking.

Notably, it makes “the British government the first Western government known to have conducted such an attack” which is “the same technique hackers use to take down bank, retail and government websites”.

“[C]ritics”, the NBC report on the subject notes, “charge the British government with overkill, noting that many of the individuals targeted were teenagers, and that the agency’s assault on communications among hacktivists means the agency infringed the free speech of people never charged with any crime.”

Now, not only is GCHQ attacking hackers with the same techniques they charge them with.

Can I also just remind everyone of how it’s been said repeatedly that NSA and GCHQ surveillance programmes are potentially very dangerous to political dissenters?

Here is what Gabriella Coleman, an anthropology professor at McGill University and author of an upcoming book about Anonymous has to say to that:

“Targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs. Some have rallied around the name [Anonymous] to engage in digital civil disobedience, but nothing remotely resembling terrorism. The majority of those embrace the idea primarily for ordinary political expression.”

Targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, for engaging in civil disobedience… got the heebie jeebies yet? I do.

If you don’t, read on and consider that in one example of an operation that targets hacktivists (you know, not terrorists), GCHQ’s special unit JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group) “was able to pull up the IP address of the VPN (virtual private network) the hacktivist was using. The VPN was supposed to protect his identity, but GCHQ either hacked into the network, asked the VPN for the hacker’s personal information, or asked law enforcement in the host nation to request the information.

Wow, there goes my feeling of security behind the cosy screen of my own VPN – and I am certainly not a hacktivist. When will I be put under surveillance for expressing my political views? Okay, probably not in the near future – but in the distant future, who knows?

I mean, all Hans and Sophie Scholl were doing before being picked up and executed was hand out some leaflets expressing their political dissent. Just saying.

Yes, I am being polemic. No, I am not comparing any of our governments to Nazi Germany.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that power like that is too easily abused for us to take this lightly.

We need to pay very close attention to what the agencies, governments and their spokespeople are saying.

For example:

In a statement, a GCHQ spokesperson emphasized that the agency operated within the law” and that all its “activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate”.

Fine. We’ve heard this one several times before.

We’ll just take their word for it, shall we? A clue: no.

Jason Healey, “a former top White House cyber security official under George W. Bush […] called the British government’s DDOS attack on Anonymous “silly,” and said it was a tactic that should only be used against another nation-state,” questioning the “time and energy spent chasing teenage hackers.”

Gabriella Coleman goes even further, saying that “[p]unishing thousands of people [i.e. all of Anonymous], who are engaging in their democratic right to protest, because a couple people committed vandalism is … an appalling example of overreacting in order to squash dissent.”

She is not wrong. Because “[e]ven though some Anonymous participants did engage in actions that were illegal, the ensemble itself poses no threat to national security.”

Why is this a problem?

After all, you might say that if some hackers caught in this way were engaging in criminal activities (credit card fraud, mind you, not terrorism), they probably had it coming.

Well, for one thing, there is the obvious threat to political dissent.

For another, GCHQ and NSA keep claiming that their operations are conducted in the name of counter-terrorism, and this seems to be yet another example of activities that have little to do with counter-terrorism.

GCHQ has no business infecting activists’ systems with malware and thwarting their communications”.

Here is something else that GCHQ has no business doing: manipulating journalists. Yet, according to a second NBC report that’s exactly what they were planning: “According to intelligence sources, spies considered using electronic snooping to identify non-British journalists who would then be manipulated to feed information to the target of a covert campaign.”

Whilst, “[t]he journalist operation was never put into action”, NBC further reports that “other techniques described in the documents [obtained by Edward Snownden…] have definitely been used to attack adversaries” – and some of them – programmes with fancy names like Embassadors Reception or Royal Concierge – are so hair-rising, I almost cannot believe they exist.

“Can we influence hotel choice?” one of these documents asks. “Can we cancel their visits?”

These programmes are designed to “destroy, degrade, disrupt, deceive,” for “propaganda” and “deception” purposes.

Here is one of my favourites:

“Other effective methods of cyber attack listed in the documents include changing photos on social media sites and emailing and texting colleagues and neighbors unsavory information. The documents do not give examples of when these techniques were used, but intelligence sources say that some of the methods described have been used by British intelligence to help British police agencies catch suspected criminals.”

The problem with that is, of course, the question of who qualifies as a suspected criminal. Importantly, this targeting of “specific people or governments” is no longer just “defence” but “offence”.

Thus, it does seem that “we’re inching into the same territory as the dictatorial regimes criticized by democratic governments for not respecting internet freedoms.”

And here is yet another crucial point:

“Whether you agree with the activities of Anonymous or not — which have included everything from supporting the Arab Spring protests to DDoSing copyright organizations to doxing child pornography site users — the salient point is that democratic governments now seem to be using their very tactics against them.”

The “key difference” being “that while those involved in Anonymous can and have faced their day in court for those tactics, the British government has not […] [W]ith unlimited resources and no oversight, organizations like the GCHQ (and theoretically the NSA) can do as they please. And it’s this power differential that makes all the difference.”

You see,

“here’s the thing: […] There are clearly defined laws and processes that a democratic government is supposed to follow. Yet here, the British government is apparently throwing out due process and essentially proceeding straight to the punishment — using a method that is considered illegal and punishable by years in prison.”

Is there outrage at this? Protest? Criminal complaints? Not really.

United Kingdom #2: Dear Mr Cameron, you are failing – sadly, so are we

Which brings me to Mr David Cameron, the UK prime minister.

The Guardian reports that Mr “Cameron has admitted he ha[s] failed to make the case for mass surveillance of communications data following revelations by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.”

While his remarks may be “an acknowledgement that current laws are outdated”, there is no reason to get excited.Why?

Well, consider the phrase “failed to make the case for mass surveillance”.

What Mr Cameron clearly hopes to achieve is to restore the public’s faith in the necessity of mass surveillance programmes. I don’t know about you but that doesn’t sound to me as if he was interested in reforming legislation in a way that keeps the British public safe from government spying.

But then, in the world according to Cameron, the British public isn’t worried by the Snowden revelations anyway:

“I sense the public reaction, as opposed to some of the media reaction, is: ‘Look, we have intelligence services because it is a dangerous world and there are people that want to do terrible things,’ ” he said, expressing, once again, his concern “about the damage that Snowden is doing to [British] security.”

Need I repeat? There is no evidence for this alleged damage.

Yet, Mr Cameron, in that little world of his, still thinks it’s a good idea to once again “encourage the newspapers that are endlessly dallying in this to think before they act because we are in severe danger of making ourselves less safe as a result.”

Now, I cannot be the only one who thinks that Mr Cameron seems to be beyond reasonable argument. For the simple reason that he just does not seem to be listening to anything reasonable anyone has to say.

Much like supporters of surveillance in the US, Mr Cameron will continue to repeat the same lines, ad nauseam ad infinitum, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary.

Normally, this would be where I would disengage myself from any argument and dismiss it as hopeless. The deeply troubling fact of this particular matter, however, is that the man is running the United Kingdom.

And unlike the Germans, who are trying to take their government to court, the British public indeed does not seem to be that bothered. They may not necessarily agree with what GCHQ is doing but that doesn’t mean that they are out in the streets protesting either.

Perhaps it is no wonder then that Mr Cameron “expressed satisfaction that the public was “unmoved” by the Guardian revelations” or that he believes he is right no matter what.

The implications of that are sinister – for two reasons.

First of all, I hope the British public aren’t anywhere near as unmoved as Mr Cameron makes believe they are. In which case, it is alarming that the prime minister should engage in this sort of wishful thinking because – second of all – there is nothing here to be satisfied with, and if the British public are indeed unmoved by these revelations than that should be no cause for satisfaction for Mr Cameron, their elected leader of a democracy. Yes, okay, a constitutional monarchy without a written constitution but a democracy nonetheless.

Oh wait, hang on. What was this thing I read a few months ago about managed democracies? Sound familiar?

A Guardian editorial from January certainly isn’t wrong when it states that “Britain’s [political system] is failing”, because in the UK there “have been minimal debates, little scrutiny, no proper review of any kind, and David Cameron has barely addressed the issues.”

I don’t quite agree with that same editorial that Barack Obama’s speech was the “balanced and serious response to the vexed issues of security and privacy abuse” that the editorial hails it as.

It is true, however, that Mr Obama, albeit cautiously and probably also a little reluctantly, is addressing these issues. Is that because Brits have less trouble with the authority of the state than Americans do, as Simon Jenkins suggests?

Whatever the reason for the public’s silence, it must be very welcome to Mr Cameron, whose continued response indicates that he would rather not be addressing these issues at all. His suggestion that he has “failed to make a case for surveillance” really means that he thinks he has failed to make a case for preserving the status quo.

While he seems to have understood by now that in the face of Home Affairs Select Committee hearings and continued revelations about Britain’s spy agency he cannot avoid addressing the subject forever, he would still prefer not having to do it. Why else would he keep insisting that there has been enough debate [when was this, I ask you? What did I miss?] and that the media have done enough reporting on the Snowden revelations?

If Mr Cameron had his way, we would all happily settle down now with our nice cups of tea, and leave the status quo intact. Because, in Mr Cameron’s world, this is the only way we can be safe.

And here is how the PM knows this: he saw it on the telly. It was on Homeland so it must be true (As I side-note, this is the only time you will find me quoting the Daily Mail without attacking it).

And here is what else: Evident in Mr Cameron’s response to the NSA/GCHQ scandal is the same worrying distancing from, if not contempt for, the British public that is so blatantly obvious in many of the Tory party’s recent policies.

Is really no one worried about what this may indicate about Mr Cameron’s attitude towards democracy?

In response to recent jibes from labour leader Ed Miliband about the Tory party’s lack of female MPs, Mr Cameron said: “we will not represent or govern our country properly unless we have more women at every level in our public life and in our politics.”

Well, Mr Cameron, I have news for you: as it is, you are not running this country properly. Not just because you do not have enough “women at every level in […] public life and […] politics” but also because you are failing vulnerable and disabled people, the poor, benefits claimants, the NHS, and, as it seems, basically anyone outside of your own small elite group of well-off Conservatives.

Yet, how dare we complain? How dare we demand that you also address this odious subject of the overreach of your spy agencies and – yes – the failure of your own government to protect your people’s rights?

Of that, of your thinly veiled scramble to stay in power, and your growing detachment from reality, let the people you are supposed to represent – so very evident in your pathetic attempt to legislate the EU referendum bill – your response to the GCHQ/NSA scandal is really just one more sad but no less deeply concerning example.

And yet, one thing is even more concerning: that you may not be entirely wrong.

Much though I wish you were, for now perhaps you have a point: the British public simply isn’t moved enough. And that is a deeply worrying democratic failure in and of itself.


P.S.: The files obtained by Edward Snowden on the JTRIG attacks are here.

Edward Snowden does not *think* in secret: an excellent essay by David Bromwich

Edward Snowden does not *think* in secret: an excellent essay by David Bromwich

I am working on an update that will come later today but in the meantime I would like to share with you this excellent essay by David Bromwich.

Not only is this brilliantly argued. Dating from July, it also brings back to mind some excellent points. Most importantly though, the way Bromwich characterises Edward Snowden I think is spot on.

Like me, Mr Bromwich writes that he has “watched [Glenn Greenwald’s June] interview [with Edward Snowden] several times, and [has] been impressed by the calm and coherence of the mind it reveals”.

One of my favourite moments is where he writes that “Snowden’s profile differ[s] from that of the spy or defector […] in one conspicuous way. He [does] not think in secret.”

This, and pretty much everything else that Bromwich writes, is uncannily in line with my own impression of Edward Snowden – an impression which more recent interviews with and statements by Mr Snowden have only strengthened.

The result is an essay that speaks my mind about Edward Snowden in a much better way then I ever could.

Enjoy the read.

“The mobile surge.” – Time for a little paranoia?

This Bird is Angry

So GCHQ and NSA have been spying on Angry Birds, have they? I am gutted. I love Angry Birds. As, apparently, does David Cameron, the British Prime Minister. Oh dear, I have something in common with that man – who would have thought? Well, I guess Evil Overlords enjoy the distraction of smartphone games too. 

Anyway, don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t exactly surprised.  And I assume people familiar with the subject matter of either app technology or surveillance or both weren’t either.

I am also quite aware that my footprint on the internet is probably rather big and that it must be easy enough for someone to trace all sorts of stuff about me, if they are interested.

So far, I admit that I have mostly shrugged this off. I know that I am putting a lot of my data out there willingly: I enjoy Facebook and I use it a lot, I am active on Twitter, I shop online and yes, I play Angry Birds. I know that I leave traces everywhere, as do most of us. So far, I haven’t really felt the need to do anything about it. Despite the Snowden revelations and my healthy obsession with them, I didn’t really feel threatened.

My objections to NSA and GSHQ surveillance practices are of a more abstract nature; I am shocked and dismayed by the attitude towards civil liberties, human rights, democracy, and also freedom of speech, a free press and democratic accountability displayed by the spy agencies, the governments and some of the media. This, to me, is evident both in the surveillance and in the demonizing of Edward Snowden. I believe that both the kind of surveillance that has been revealed and the reaction to the persons that have revealed it (Mr Snowden himself as much as his “accomplices“) is evidence that something is going fundamentally wrong in our democracies. That is what I object to, that is what worries me but I am more concerned with what that means for the fundamental principles that our societies have been built on than with my personal digital footprint.

So yes, sure, I was spooked and dismayed by the extent and potential evident in programmes like Boundless Informant. Stuff like that makes my skin crawl. I take seriously what Edward Snowden said about how the spooks can go back over your data and make you look suspicious in retrospect if they want to, but – and this may be naive – at the end of the day, I sleep soundly in the knowledge that I am hardly interesting enough to become a target.

Or so I think.

As more programmes continue to come to light, however, my trepidation slowly rises.

For example, it has emerged this week that NSA and GCHQ can apparently follow our movements when we are using Google Maps. Again, not necessarily surprising – we are all constantly traceable in the age of GPS-enabled mobile phones anyway. I have always found mobile phone masts slightly daunting, to be honest.

But for some reason, for me the news about Google Maps brought the magnitude of the intrusion home once again with force.

I use Google Maps quite a lot to find my way around and I increasingly had to rely on it recently.

I had never thought much of it but then, this week, suddenly, there it was: the nagging feeling at the back back of my mind that, in theory, someone could be tracking my movements as I was trying to find my way from the station to my destination. That there was a fat, fiery eye at the top of a tower somewhere, following my every move. Well, perhaps not quite as Peter Jackson as that but you get the idea: Frodo was only able to make it as far as Mount Doom because Sam insisted that he keep his phone switched the ring off and still Frodo’s (and Gollum’s) obsession with it almost jeopardized the entire enterprise. Pippin’s curiosity about Saruman’s personal Skyping device certainly made him a victim of fiery-eyed surveillance. So there.

On Monday night, my old friend Google Maps suddenly started to seem untrustworthy and then, as I was out on Tuesday for my run, it also occurred to me the GPS I am using to map my runs could, in theory, be used to spy on me and my preferred routes, my training schedules, my habits. After all, “[t]wo top-secret flow charts produced by the British agency in 2012 showed incoming streams of information skimmed from smartphone traffic by the Americans and the British” and apart from the now all-too-familiar metadata, these streams provide information from “social apps,” “geo apps,” “http linking,” webmail, MMS and traffic associated with mobile ads, among others.”

So, in theory, anyone could be watching, anytime, and should we ever fall under suspicion, the spooks could put a tap on us, they could familiarize themselves with our usual patterns of behaviour, and they could grab us off the street. Creepy enough yet? If not, then consider that it doesn’t even have to be the spooks. Any prowling lunatic with enough technical knowledge could, in theory, do that.

I know it sounds paranoid and it’s probably not going to happen. Perhaps it’s got to do with reading American Psycho which is, I would say, quite conducive to paranoia but I am a bit more frightened now than I was before. Yes, I am only half serious. Patrick Bateman does not stalk his victims by smartphone. Neither does Sauron. But still.

Coming at it from a different perspective, even if the news isn’t that astonishing, there is still a difference between suspecting something (and thus not being surprised when it turns out to be true) and seeing it written down in black and white.

For one thing, there is proof now and hopefully there will be consequences.

For another, it is extremely embarrassing for the spooks.

Why? Because it brings home, once again, and I would argue more clearly than ever at least to a lay audience (myself included), what NSA and GCHQ can really do. That is, what exactly they have access to and how they use it. And that isn’t – as they keep claiming – *only* our metadata.

And even if we go along with that narrow definition of spying that “does not include the ingestion of tens of trillions of records about the telephone calls, e-mails, locations and relationships of people for whom there is no suspicion of relevance to any threat”, then it still isn’t clear how blameless the agencies really are.


Lying – spying; a difference in consonants?

Importantly, to claim that what the agencies do isn’t spying because they only hoover up metadata and not content, is to rely on too narrow a definition of spying. You could also call it lying by omission.

And anyway. We are no longer talking “just” metadata.

Granted, “[t]he documents do not detail whether the agencies actually collect the potentially sensitive details some apps are capable of storing or transmitting, but any such information would likely qualify as content, rather than metadata.”

However, I cannot be the only one who has little hope that the agencies actually refrain from collecting those sensitive details.

Given the revelations of the past couple of months and NSA chief Keith Alexander’s objective to “collect it all”, I would be surprised if they passed up that opportunity.


“Probably unlawful”

Both NSA and GCHQ keep insisting that their operations keep strictly within legal frameworks.

However, in the UK this week “the leading public law barrister Jemima Stratford QC raise[d] a series of concerns about the legality and proportionality of GCHQ’s work, warning that much of what GCHQ does is “probably illegal and […] in breach of human rights”  and that the “British spy agency is ‘using gaps in regulation to commit serious crime with impunity’”.

As an example, this could include “intelligence used for US drone strikes against “non-combatants” [being] passed on or supplied by the British before being used in a missile attack.”

Notes Ms Stratford’s advice: “An individual involved in passing that information is likely to be an accessory to murder. It is well arguable, on a variety of different bases, that the government is obliged to take reasonable steps to investigate that possibility.”

“[The advice also] makes clear the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa), the British law used to sanction much of GCHQ’s activity, has been left behind by advances in technology.”

For example, there is an “issue with Ripa’s distinction between metadata and content of messages; when Ripa was passed this was analogous to the difference between the address on an envelope and the letter within it.”

Now what was that definition of spying again? Spying is only looking only at content? Collecting metadata isn’t spying?


But we don’t even need to go that far. Interestingly, the advice also states very clearly that “Ripa does not allow mass interception of contents of communications between two people in the UK, even if messages are routed via a transatlantic cable” (emphasis added) – i.e. the spooks are not allowed to scrape together every envelope they can get their hands on, even if they don’t open them and never read the letters.

So much for Operation Tempora, that “GCHQ programme that harvests vast amounts of information by tapping into the undersea cables that carry internet and phone traffic passing in and out of the UK.”

Contrary to what GCHQ and foreign secretary William Hague have been telling us, GCHQ is probably not acting within the law when it makes use of Tempora’s capabilities.

In fact, the words “probably unlawful” crop up an awful lot in Ms Stratford’s advice which, finally, also suggests that

“[i]f GCHQ is not entitled to hold onto data itself, it might transfer it to the NSA. In time, and if relevant, that data might be transferred back to GCHQ. Without strong guidelines and scrutiny, the two services might support each other to (in effect) circumvent the requirements of their domestic legislation.”

And things don’t stop there (do they ever?)

Last week “judges at the European court of human rights […] fast-tracked a case brought by privacy and human rights campaigners” ordering the UK government “to provide submissions by the beginning of May about whether GCHQ’s spying activities could be a violation of the right to privacy under article 8 of the European convention.”

Ms Stratford’s advice suggests that it could be.

Excuse me if I am not particularly reassured by, well, reassurances from the spy agencies, Mr Hague or Mr Obama that they are operating within the law.


Supporting the spooks

 “Documents, shared by The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica, show that the N.S.A. and the British agency routinely obtain information from certain apps, particularly those introduced earliest to cellphones. With some newer apps, including Angry Birds, the agencies have a similar ability, the documents show, but they do not make explicit whether the spies have put that into practice.

“Some personal data,” that can be obtained in this way, the New York Times reports, “could be particularly sensitive: A secret British intelligence document from 2012 said that spies can scrub smartphone apps to collect details like a user’s “political alignment” and sexual orientation.”

So, in theory, the spooks don’t just watch you as you use Google Maps to find your way from your home to your nearest polling station. They also know who you vote for and who you’ve slept with the night before. Wow, talk about transparent.

So perhaps I wasn’t wrong to be spontaneously spooked by Google Maps this week after reading that NSA and GCHQ “displayed a particular interest in Google Maps, which is accurate to within a few yards or better in some locations. Intelligence agencies collected so much data from the app that […] [i]t effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system.”

You are welcome, GCHQ.

Except no, you aren’t.This isn’t Big Brother.

Yes, I may upload a lot of stuff to Facebook. I tweet, I shop online, I play Angry Birds – but that is me giving my data to someone else more or less out of my own free will.

GCHQ enlisting me into its services without my knowledge simply because I have no sense of direction and need Google Maps for support…? No, sorry, I don’t think that’s on.

It’s also not on that GHCQ accesses data about our sexual orientation and even less that they potentially look into our political affiliations. None of us ever agreed to be on the bloody Truman Show. I think hardly any of us would readily move into the Big Brother house either.

Yet, “[d]epending on what profile information a user had supplied,” the Guardian reports, “the agency would be able to collect almost every key detail of a user’s life: including home country, current location (through geolocation), age, gender, zip code, marital status – options included “single”, “married”, “divorced”, “swinger” and more – income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level, and number of children.”

Remember when I first wrote about how dangerous such capabilities could be, for example, to dissenters living under totalitarian regimes?

Just because we still seem to be living in something that works hard to resemble a democracy doesn’t mean that in theory, in the future, information like that could not come in handy for someone trying to make a case against us. Even if we were completely innocent.

I mean, do consider that, amongst other things, the spooks can access your (or your friends’) “buddy lists” and “a host of other social working data”. In short, they can – and do – trace all sorts of connections between yourself an others. I have said before how easy it is, in theory, to be connected to someone who looks dodgy and then to be set up as dodgy-looking yourself in retrospect.


Cookie with your tea?

A few more words on metadata and its sheer volume: “One GCHQ document from 2010 notes that cookie data – which generally qualifies as metadata – has become just as important to the spies. In fact, the agencies were sweeping it up in such high volumes that their [sic] were struggling to store it.

That’s a lot of information. And if it’s that important to the spies, then show of hands who agrees that to insist that metadata collection isn’t spying makes you look as if you have or facts wrong or as if you are “relying on an unusually narrow definition” of the term.


The Smurfs are in on it too

I’d almost find this amusing if the information wasn’t so harrowing:

“GCHQ’s targeted tools against individual smartphones are named after characters in the TV series The Smurfs. An ability to make the phone’s microphone ‘hot’, to listen in to conversations, is named “Nosey Smurf”. High-precision geolocation is called “Tracker Smurf”, power management – an ability to stealthily activate a phone that is apparently turned off – is “Dreamy Smurf”, while the spyware’s self-hiding capabilities are codenamed “Paranoid Smurf”.

So what this is saying is that behind the funny-sounding names given to these tools, what they can do is listen to your phone conversations, geolocate you, turn your phone on and off for you (apparently placing it in a freezer will stop them listening) and then hide everything they can do in case you are – like I am getting by now – a little bit paranoid.


Squeaky Dolphin

But okay. For the sake of the argument, say that you are not, like me or Mr Cameron, an avid player of Angry Birds or a GPS-reliant runner or clueless about directions. Say you are a couch potato without a smartphone and that you still use good old-fashioned cardboard maps to find your way around when you do go out.

Unless you are a computer-free hermit with no access to the internet, chances are that you still won’t stay unobserved.

The British government can tap into the cables carrying the world’s web traffic at will and spy on what people are doing on some of the world’s most popular social media sites, including YouTube, all without the knowledge or consent of the companies.” 

The monitoring program is called “Squeaky Dolphin” and “psychology” is apparently a whole “new kind of SIGDEV”. Have a look at the fill document leaked by Edward Snowden here.

Why is this a problem? Well, apart from the obvious, that it’s “[i]t’s one thing to spy on a particular person who has done something to warrant a government investigation but governments have no business monitoring the Facebook likes or YouTube views of hundreds of millions of people,” one particular instance also makes it quite clear that perhaps my concerns about what these kinds of capabilities can mean for political dissent aren’t very far off the mark:

More than a year prior to the demonstration, in a 2012 annual report, members of Parliament had complained that the U.K.’s intelligence agencies had missed the warning signs of the uprisings that became the Arab Spring of 2011, and had expressed the wish to improve “global” intelligence collection.

I mean, just let this sink in: “Psychology” – the “new kind of SIGDEV”. Am I the only one who is creeped out by the idea that the spooks are now working their way into our heads and souls?


So, what have we got?

We’ve got at least two spy agencies – NSA and GCHQ – gathering metadata from all sorts of sources, including popular apps, YouTube and Google Maps on a massive scale.

Evidence has it that they feel quite chuffed about how much they can gather, which potentially includes highly sensitive personal data.

We’ve got spooks with very frightening tracking capabilities.

We’ve got a top lawyer’s advice that a lot of what GCHQ gets up to is “probably unlawful”.

We’ve got evidence that there is, in fact, not really any room for probability here – in all likelihood many of these practices are unlawful.

We have a UK Prime Minister whose recreational pastimes are now a matter of national security.

I tell you what we haven’t got.

Systems of appropriate oversight, for one thing.

Adequate protection for whistleblowers for another.

And here is something else we haven’t got: reform.

Quite the contrary. In the UK, we have PM Cameron who as recently as this week said that “he was unhappy that newspapers were still publishing sensitive information leaked by former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden and urged them to stop.

Fat chance of reforms there. I am sure that, if he could, the PM would order the Guardian to destroy the documents the paper received from Edward Snowden. Oh hang on! He has already done that.
A video of that particular incident has now been released by the Guardian.

In the US, we have a director of national intelligence who – after allegedly lying to Congress last year – still condemns the Snowden reporting and who, despite allegedly committing a felony, has not been investigated or charged and still has his job (in that he is luckier than NSA chiefs Inglis and Alexander and – most recently – GCHQ chief Lobban who are all “resigning”).

I have commented previously on why I am not impressed with the NSA reforms announced by president Obama. Not much actual reform there either.

So, in light of all that, perhaps it is no wonder that I am turning into a bit of a paranoid Smurf.

It may be time for us all to step up our security.

Or perhaps I should just start tagging all my posts #justjokingnsa

Except I am not. Joking.

#StopWatchingUs. Now.