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.


2 thoughts on “If our governments are failing us, then – sorry – so are we

  1. Pingback: #TheDayWeFightBack: Taking action against mass surveillance | Notes from Self

  2. Pingback: “I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true” – Edward Snowden’s testimony to Members of the European Parliament | Notes from Self

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