Happy Birthday, Edward Snowden, and sorry about Germany!

In case you hadn’t noticed, heard or remembered: today is Edward Snowden’s 32nd birthday. So first of all:

Happy Birthday, Edward Snowden,

and thank you again for everything you have done to make the world aware of what the NSA, the GCHQ, the BND, the CSE, the governments of the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and others are doing against us and not in our names.

I almost feel like apologising in turn for everything that we have failed to achieve over the past two years since you revealed yourself to the world and got marooned in Russia when the USA cancelled your passport while you were en route to Latin America (I feel I need to mention this again because some people – like the stenographers at the British Sunday Times – still cannot get their research right – or be bothered to do any research at all). In the USA, although some surveillance reform is underway, it is not actually as substantial as we may have hoped. In the UK, the government is keen to press ahead with their controversial Snoopers Charter. Almost everywhere, awareness and debate of mass surveillance in the general population is low. After all, we think we have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear.

However, this week’s award for the most epic anti-surveillance #fail has to go to the German government. For two reasons.

Data Retention

First of all, there is the question of data retention that’s been discussed in Germany for years now. In 2006, the European Parliament issued a Data Retention Directive which required member states “to store citizens’ telecommunications data for a minimum of 6 months and at most 24 months.” The directive was struck down by the European Court of Justice in 2014 “for violating fundamental rights”:

The Court took the view that the Directive does not meet the principle of proportionality and should have provided more safeguards to protect the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data.

What is more, Germany’s own constitutional court declared data retention unconstitutional in 2010. There is widespread opposition against it both in the German parliament and amongst the German population. And yet, Merkel’s government are trying to bring it back. A reminder: Germany is currently being run by a “grand” coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the party that should be their nemesis but seems like more of their subsidiary these days: the Social Democrats (SPD).

The SPD had a vote this weekend on whether or not to support their coalition partner’s data retention plans. The outcome was 144 to 88 in favour with 7 abstentions. So, rather than to reform surveillance in Germany, at a time when Germany’s own foreign intelligence agency, the BND, is under fire for potentially helping the NSA spy on European corporations and diplomats (more on that later), the German government seems determined to take a few steps backwards and re-introduce a practice that was previously struck down by both its own constitutional court and the European Court of Justice.

Merkel’s phone and the NSA’s selectors

Which brings me to the second reason for why the German government really doesn’t have a lot to be proud of right now. Readers may have noticed my German post last week. In it, I essentially wondered (or rather ranted) at the following paradox: The German attorney general has just ended his investigation into NSA spying on Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, saying that he has not been able to produce sufficient evidence. He also complained that the USA just wouldn’t help with the investigation. I am not going to get into another argument about why it is ludicrous to expect someone whose potentially illegal conduct you are investigating to provide you with evidence of that self-same conduct. I would like to once again draw attention to the paradox, however, that at the same time that the German attorney general is unable to produce any conclusive evidence, the German parliamentary NSA inquiry committee, tasked with investigating NSA spying in Germany, has been trying unsuccessfully to get access to a certain list of NSA selectors that could be evidence of the fact that the BND helped the NSA with its spying in Germany and Europe.

You would think that a government with a declared interested in investigating NSA spying would support its own parliamentary inquiry and allow it to gather the evidence it needs. Not so.

Rather than to hand the list of selectors over to a committee specifically formed to investigate such matters, the German government – who, in a show of indignation declared some time ago that spying between friends just wasn’t on – send a friendly inquiry to the US government to ask if it was okay for the German government to show the list to its parliamentarians. Naturally, the USA weren’t too keen on that. So, the German government decided on a compromise: it would name one single person who would be allowed to review the list and tell parliament all about it. Well, not all about it, actually because that “person of trust” as the post is so aptly named, would not be allowed to speak about the juicier details of what they found. Needless to say – yet again – how perfectly ludicrous this is.


Unsurprisingly, the decision has come under a lot of criticism (and threats for legal action) by the opposition and privacy campaigners. Unfortunately for Merkel and her minions, who are working tirelessly to keep everyone happy (and failing because no one is), the US government has now, according to the German newspaper BILD am Sonntag, said that it won’t even agree to that single person seeing the list and that it will “will consider decreasing cooperation between the US and German intelligence services” if German parliamentarians are given access to it. It seems that the German government now has the following options:

1.) Show the list to no one at all, thus effectively ending that line of inquiry and obstructing the investigation even further.

2.) Go against the USA’s wishes and release the list.

The result of either choice will most certainly be unhappiness. And making the USA unhappy seems to be something Merkel’s government seems to be hardwired not to do. Given the length to which the German government has gone so far to obstruct the work of its own parliamentary inquiry (citing the “vital” cooperation with the USA and transatlantic relations as reasons), and that SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel, who a few weeks ago demanded the government grow some balls and just hand the list over, also demanded that Edward Snowden be called as a witness before the same inquiry committee and then did a complete U-turn on that a year ago, I think we can make some assumptions about how the current situation is going to turn out.

So I am deeply sorry, but two years post Snowden and on the day of Snowden’s 32nd birthday, things aren’t looking that bright for surveillance reform, privacy, civil liberty or even democracy in Germany.

“On the wrong side of history.”

Filmmaker Laura Poitras has recently urged the German government once again to grant Snowden asylum, saying that her own country (the USA) was on “the wrong side of history”. Given that the German government is prepared to disregard the authority of its own parliament to avoid tensions with the USA, it should be obvious that Germany will probably not, as Poitras hopes, “lead the way and grant asylum to Edward Snowden.” Rather, it seems pretty clear by now which side of history the German government is on. Sorry about that.


Smearing Snowden: everything that’s wrong with the Sunday Times piece – a collection of links and quotes

There’s no evidence anyone’s been harmed but we’d like the phrase ‘blood on his hands’ somewhere in the piece.

Jonathan King via Twitter

On Sunday 14th June 2015, the Sunday Times published an article claiming that

RUSSIA and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries.

The original article is hidden behind a paywall (that’s journalism worth paying for!) but the full text can be read here.

Anyone with some background knowledge on Edward Snowden, the documents he leaked, the reporting they have enabled and the claims that have been made (and regurgitated ad nauseam) to discredit both Snowden and the reporting will notice several, shall we say, weaknesses in the Times piece – like, for example, the repetition of the unproven 1.7 million documents claim that has been floating around since what feels like the beginning of time.

However, even those with little to no knowledge of the Snowden stories will notice the seriously worrying “journalistic ethics” at play here. Most obviously, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out: “The whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials” (emphasis in original). What is more, close reading of the article reveals inconsistencies, dubious and contradictory claims throughout the whole piece.

For example:

David Cameron’s aides confirmed the material was now in the hands of spy chiefs in Moscow and Beijing.

This beckons the question of how the Times knows that, or rather, of how Cameron’s aides (who aren’t identified) know that. In short: who are the people saying so, where can we get their confirmation and most importantly: where is the evidence?

The article continues:

A senior Downing Street source said: “It is the case that Russians and Chinese have information. It has meant agents have had to be moved and that knowledge of how we operate has stopped us getting vital information. There is no evidence of anyone being harmed.”

Note that what the (again: unidentified) source doesn’t say is: “It is the case that Russians and Chinese have that particular information” (i.e. from Snowden’s cache). That they have information (whatever information that may be) is obvious: everyone does. Some of Snowden’s information is in the public domain and has been for a while, following the reporting done on it. This isn’t news, it’s just a statement of fact. Still, the question is: just what information does the Times allege that the Russians and the Chinese have and where is the evidence that they have more or different information than the rest of us (which, I am sure, they do but that doesn’t necessarily mean they got it from Snowden. They have their own spies.)

Or, as Ryan Gallagher puts it:

[T]he Russians and Chinese have access to documents published with public news reports, sure, that’s obvious and true. But is the claim here that they have access to material beyond that? If so, where’s the evidence? How does this source “know” and what does he “know,” exactly? Why the vague statement?

Then there is the contradiction that there is “no evidence of anyone being harmed” when the Times quotes another (guess what? Anonymous!) source saying that “Snowden has blood on his hands,” and also claiming that “[t]he confirmation is the first evidence that Snowden’s disclosures have exacted a human toll.”

Question: how is there a human toll if no one has been harmed? Note: the confirmation is dubious because the source isn’t named and also no evidence is being provided.

Sadly, the Times article raises more questions than it answers and regurgitates false or dubious claims that have been around for a long time, mostly made by unnamed sources. As Glenn Greenwald writes:

This is the very opposite of journalism.

The most interesting thing about the Times article is the timing. Shami Chakrabarti points out that it immediately follows a call made by “David Anderson, the government’s reviewer of terrorism legislation,” for “a comprehensive new law incorporating judicial warrants” after Anderson “condemned snooping laws as “undemocratic, unnecessary and – in the long run – intolerable”.

Isn’t it funny that the exact week that the snooping powers that be come under threat from a damning review, “new evidence” appears that condemns the man who made a review of these powers possible in the first place? I think not.

Unsurprisingly, the article has drawn a lot of criticism. Below a collection of pieces debunking the article. For each, I quote some key points, as they express exactly the kinds of thoughts I had when reading the Times piece. Feel free to follow the links and read the op-eds themselves.

Ryan Gallagher: Questions about the Sunday Times Snowden Story

The story is sourced from anonymous UK government officials who make a series of significant allegations, unfortunately backed up with zero evidence.

Is the claim here that a full archive of encrypted files was “cracked” by some sort of brute-force decryption attack? If so, how did these “senior officials” establish that? How did the Russians and Chinese allegedly obtain the encrypted material in the first place?

Keeping in mind that the UK government does not actually know exactly what Snowden leaked, how do these officials know there were documents in there that implicated MI6 operatives and live operations in the first place?

Snowden has said repeatedly that he did not carry any files with him when he left Hong Kong for Moscow. Is this article alleging that he is lying? If so, where’s the evidence to support that?

If the claim here is that the Russians and Chinese have access to every single document in the entire archive (i.e. all the unpublished material), where is the evidence to support that? How do the officials know? Are they speculating? These are serious claims — and serious claims demand serious evidence. Which is unfortunately not provided here.

The reality is that Snowden never intended to stay in Russia. He was trying to get to Latin America and only ended up in Russia because his passport was revoked by the US government while he was transiting through.

All in all, for me the Sunday Times story raises more questions than it answers, and more importantly it contains some pretty dubious claims, contradictions, and inaccuracies. The most astonishing thing about it is the total lack of scepticism it shows for these grand government assertions, made behind a veil of anonymity. This sort of credulous regurgitation of government statements is antithetical to good journalism.

Glenn Greenwald: The Sunday Times’ Snowden Story is Journalism at its Worst — and Filled with Falsehoods

The whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials. It gives voice to banal but inflammatory accusations that are made about every whistleblower from Daniel Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning. It offers zero evidence or confirmation for any of its claims. The “journalists” who wrote it neither questioned any of the official assertions nor even quoted anyone who denies them.

The same thing happened with Chelsea Manning. When WikiLeaks first began publishing the Afghan War logs, U.S. officials screamed that they – all together now – had “blood on their hands.” But when some journalists decided to scrutinize rather than mindlessly repeat the official accusation (i.e., some decided to do journalism), they found it was a fabrication.

Finally, none of what’s in the Sunday Times is remotely new. US and UK government officials and their favorite journalists have tried for two years to smear Snowden with these same claims.

Importantly, the original Times text included the claim that David Miranda, Greenwald’s husband, was detained at Heathrow airport after visiting Snowden in Moscow. This is false. Miranda had been visiting film-maker Laura Poitras in Berlin. While it is possible that the Times simply got it wrong, they later “just removed [the claim] from their story without any indication or note to their readers that they’ve done so.” It remains in the print edition of course.

Ewen MacAskill: Snowden files ‘read by Russia and China’: five questions for UK government

These are serious allegations and, as such, the government has an obligation to respond openly… Anonymous sources are an unavoidable part of reporting, but neither Downing Street nor the Home Office should be allowed to hide behind anonymity in this case.

Is it true that Russia and China have gained access to Snowden’s top-secret documents? If so, where is the evidence?

[I]f agents had to be moved, why? Which Snowden documents allegedly compromised them to the extent they had to be forcibly removed from post?

The White House, the US intelligence agencies and especially some members of Congress have been desperate to blacken Snowden’s reputation. They have gone through his personal life and failed to come up with a single damaging detail.

Most the allegations have been made before in some form, only to fall apart when scrutinised.

The issue [of surveillance and reform] is not going away and the Sunday Times story may reflect a cack-handed attempt by some within the British security apparatus to try to take control of the narrative.

Shami Chakrabarti: Let me be clear – Edward Snowden is a hero

Low on facts, high on assertions, this flimsy but impeccably timed story gives us a clear idea of where government spin will go in the coming weeks. It uses scare tactics to steer the debate away from Anderson’s considered recommendations – and starts setting the stage for the home secretary’s new investigatory powers bill. In his report, Anderson clearly states no operational case had yet been made for the snooper’s charter. So it is easy to see why the government isn’t keen on people paying too close attention to it.

[W]hen it comes to responding to criticism, the approach of the Conservative leadership has been the same for some time: shut down all debate by branding Snowden – or anyone else who dares question the security agencies – as an enemy of the state and an apologist for terror.

Robert Graham: How we really know the Sunday Times story is bogus

Stories sourced entirely from “anonymous senior government officials” are propaganda, not journalism. The identities of the sources are hidden not to protect them from speaking out against the government, since they are in fact delivering exactly the message the government wants to get out. Instead, their identities are kept secret so that their message cannot be challenged.

TechDirt: The Pulitzer Prize In Bullshit FUD Reporting Goes To… The Sunday Times For Its ‘Snowden Expose’

The whole thing is such a shoddy piece of propaganda that it seems almost hilarious… and would be if actual serious news sites weren’t repeating the claims, often with little question. The BBC was quick to put up a piece repeating the claims — though it has since added a few dissenting viewpoints. Many other UK tabloids have more or less repeated the claims. The only paper that seems to strongly be pushing back is The Guardian (who published the first Snowden revelation and many later ones as well). It has been raising lots of questions about the original reporting, demanding answers from the UK government about the claims and actually willing to call out the report as “low on facts, high on assertions.”

Of course the timing on this is even more suspect. It comes out just as a report was published in the UK that slammed some aspects of government surveillance, and it seems noteworthy that right before this, there was a sudden upsurge in ridiculous and slightly unhinged fear mongering about Snowden himself — none of which comes with any actual evidence, but all angry speculation.

Craig Murray: Five Reasons the MI6 Story is a Lie

The argument that MI6 officers are at danger of being killed by the Russians or Chinese is a nonsense. No MI6 officer has been killed by the Russians or Chinese for 50 years. The worst that could happen is they would be sent home. Agents’ – generally local people, as opposed to MI6 officers – identities would not be revealed in the Snowden documents. Rule No.1 in both the CIA and MI6 is that agents’ identities are never, ever written down, neither their names nor a description that would allow them to be identified.

This anti Snowden non-story – even the Sunday Times admits there is no evidence anybody has been harmed – is timed precisely to coincide with the government’s new Snooper’s Charter act, enabling the security services to access all our internet activity.

The obvious verdict is damning

The Sunday Times story is yet another example of various attempts that have been made since 2013 to smear Snowden and undermine his credibility. It does no such thing. Rather, it undermines the credibility of the Sunday Times and, potentially, of media and journalists everywhere. Equally worrying, however, is that there will be people – and probably not a few of them either – who will just take it at face value.

NSA-Selektorenliste: Bin das ich oder spinnen jetzt alle?

Also, jetzt nochmal von vorn: Der Generalbundesanwalt hat die Ermittlungen zur Ausspähung des Merkelphone eingestellt. Weil: es „liegen [zwar] starke Indizien vor – aber“ – surprise, surprise – „die USA wollten bei der Aufklärung einfach nicht helfen.“

Ach was! Ehrlich? Das ist ja unfassbar! Die USA – deren Auslandsgeheimdienst NSA von Edward Snowden und diversen Journalisten als weltumspannende, nicht immer legal agierende Superspähmaschine mit manchmal schwer vorstellbaren Befugnissen entlarvt wurde, die den deutschen BND und das Kanzleramt offenbar in der Hosentasche hat – diese USA, die sich seit Beginn der Spähaffäre wiederholt auf die dicke Freundschaft mit Deutschland berufen (Obama nannte diese jüngst „eine der weltweit engsten Beziehungen“), aber sich hinterrücks am Handy der Kanzlerin vergreifen und dem BND fragwürdige Selektoren unterjubeln, diese USA wollen also dem augenscheinlich eher unbedeutenden Deutschland nicht bei der Aufklärung eines Tatbestandes helfen, bei dem sie selbst die Täter sind? Bitte?! Da hätte ja wirklich niemand gedacht! So eine bodenlose Unverschämtheit!

Na gut, gewisse Eingeständnisse seitens der USA gab es laut SPIEGEL-Informationen schon:

Informell und inoffiziell wurde der Sachverhalt [der Handyüberwachung]… verschiedentlich eingeräumt. Der ehemalige NSA-Chef Michael Hayden beispielsweise erklärte im SPIEGEL-Gespräch, er sei nicht bereit, sich für den Vorgang an sich zu entschuldigen – wohl aber dafür, dass dieser publik geworden sei.

Mal ganz abgesehen davon, dass man völlig reuelos “den Vorgang an sich” implizit zugibt und es einen, wenn überhaupt, nur nervt, dass man dabei erwischt wurde, reichen wohl „[v]age Aussagen aus den USA “… [der Bundesanwaltschaft] für eine Beschreibung des Tatgeschehens nicht aus”.

Mist. Was machen wir denn jetzt? Was soll man tun, wenn die Beweislage so uneindeutig – oder eher „nicht ausreichend“ – ist, dass man den USA zum Thema Merkelphone rechtlich nicht bekommen kann? Und wenn sich die USA sowohl dem Generalbundesanwalt, als auch dem NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss im Bundestag gegenüber – man möchte noch einmal hinzufügen erwartungsgemäß – unkooperativ zeigen?

Die Antwort auf diese Frage scheint so offenkundig, dass man eigentlich nur in mehr oder weniger stiller Verzweiflung die Hände vors Gesichts schlagen kann. Weil man natürlich auch weiß, dass jeder Mensch in Berlin und anderswo die Antwort seit Wochen und Monaten kennt, aber keiner auch nur im Ansatz die entsprechende Konsequenz zieht.

Im Englischen gibt es die sehr passende Metapher der „Smoking Gun“: die Idee ist, dass jemand mit dem noch schwelenden Revolver in der Hand ertappt wird und somit der Tatbestand eigentlich eindeutig ist. Dieser schwelende Revolver sorgt jetzt schon seit Wochen für Streit zwischen der BuReg und dem NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss: die NSA-Selektorenliste.

Hä?! Sorgt für Streit zwischen der BuReg und einem eigens eingesetzten Ausschuss zur Aufklärung der NSA-Affäre? Sollten sich BuReg und der Ausschuss hier nicht einig sein? Es geht schließlich um deutsche Interessen? Sollte man sich da nicht eher mit den USA streiten?

Eben nicht. Denn ohne die Erlaubnis der USA, so die Regierung (der vormals ausgespähten) Merkel, bleibt die Liste unter Schloss und Riegel. Mit den USA streitet man sich nämlich nicht, da wartet man höflich auf Zustimmung. Welche die USA – Wunder über Wunder – natürlich nicht kameradschaftlich erteilen. Dann schon lieber Krach mit den eigenen Leuten.

Fassen wir zusammen:

Der Generalbundesanwalt ermittelt in Sachen Merkelphone. Er kann laut eigener Aussage nicht genug gerichtsfeste Beweise erbringen und muss das Verfahren daher einstellen. Auf diesem Wege scheint es also nicht möglich zur Aufklärung der seit zwei Jahren schwelenden NSA-Affäre beizutragen. Es gibt da aber eine Liste mit potenzieller Beweiskraft. Nämlich die Liste, auf der jene fragwürdigen Selektoren stehen, mit denen die NSA offenbar in Deutschland und Europa mit Hilfe des BND Spionage betreibt, die wenig mit der nationalen Sicherheit und sehr viel mit zum Beispiel wirtschaftlichen Interessen zu tun hat. The Smoking Gun eben. Und die hält die BuReg – komplizenmäßig – seit Wochen zurück. Man will ja den USA nicht ans Bein pinkeln, indem man einem parlamentarischen Ausschuss, der mit der Aufklärung solcher Sachverhalte beauftragt ist, ein Beweismittel vorlegt, von dem der Verdächtige – also die USA – nicht will, dass es öffentlich wird. Wegen der nationalen Sicherheit und so. Und wegen der ungemein wichtigen Zusammenarbeit von NSA und BND, ohne die Deutschland „blind“ wäre und wegen der man so ziemlich alles mit sich machen lässt.

Man diskutiert lieber über Emittlungsbeauftragte und vor allem spricht man das Thema Selektorenliste gegenüber den USA beim G7-Gipfel nicht an oder spricht zumindest sicher nicht Klartext. Vor dem malerischen Idyll von Schloss Elmau hat man wie immer wichtigeres zu tun, als die vom Grundgesetz verbrieften Rechte des „deutschen Volkes“ zu verteidigen, dem man per Amtseid zugesichert hat, dass man „Schaden“ von ihm „wenden“ würde.

Aber nur ganz bestimmten Schaden. Nämlich den durch irgendwelche Terroristen, die möglicherweise irgendwelche Anschläge planen, von denen nicht einmal klar ist, ob man sie durch Massenüberwachung oder Vorratsdatenspeicherung (ironischerweise in Deutschland genau in der Woche wieder beschlossen, in der sie in den USA gekippt wurde) verhindern könnte. Erfahrungsgemäß eher nicht.

Den ganz konkreten Schaden, der durch das Verhalten desjenigen „Freundes“ entsteht, der sich wiederholt mit Gusto über alles hinwegsetzt, was man so vereinbart hat, sich schlicht weigert sich anders als rüpelhaft zu verhalten, mit dem noch schwelenden Revolver wedelt, weil er es eben kann – dagegen tut man nichts. Und das, obwohl es laut einer 15-seitigen Analyse der Wissenschaftlichen Dienste des Bundestags „rechtswidrig [wäre], die sogenannten NSA-Selektoren einem Sonderermittler, nicht aber dem NSA-Untersuchungsausschuss vorzulegen“ und sich auch Parlamentspräsident Lammert dagegen ausspricht. Aber die Bundesregierung wird den Ermittler notfalls wohl auch im Alleingang einsetzen, ohne Zustimmung der Opposition. Demokratie?

Der FDP-Bundesvorsitzende Wolfgang Kubicki hat dazu Folgendes zu sagen:

Nachdem sich Bundeskanzlerin Merkel und ihr Adlatus, Kanzleramtsminister Altmaier, schon in der Vergangenheit damit hervorgetan haben, in der BND-NSA-Affäre missliebige Informationen zu unterdrücken und damit die parlamentarische Kontrolle möglichst zu erschweren, haben beide spätestens jetzt die Grenze des demokratisch Erträglichen übertreten. Wenn die Bundesregierung mit Verweis auf völkerrechtliche Verträge verfassungswidriges Verhalten begründet, dann hat das mit rechtsstaatlichen Grundsätzen nicht mehr viel zu tun. Es ist kaum vorstellbar, dass das Aufklärungsbedürfnis eines souveränen Parlamentes vom Wohl und Wehe des amerikanischen Bündnispartners abhängig sein soll.

Man könnte angesichts der Rückgratlosigkeit der BuReg depressiv werden, wäre man das nicht ohnehin schon seit nunmehr zwei Jahren. Man könnte mit Überraschung oder Unverständnis reagieren, wenn man das nicht alles bereits mehrmals durch hätte und es überhaupt noch möglich wäre angesichts der Aufklärungsunwillens der deutschen Regierung überrascht zu sein. Oder von der Wiedereinführung der Vorratsdatenspeicherung entgegen dem Willen von so ziemlich allen außer den Damen und Herren im Regierungskabinett.

Der Generalbundesanwalt ermittelt übrigens auch in Sachen Selektoren. Also nein: das bin nicht nur ich, das ist grotesk und ja: es spinnen alle. Oder ziemlich viele, jedenfalls. Denn leider hat Sascha Lobo auch ganz und gar Recht, wenn er schreibt, dass wir als „Durschschnittsbürger“ mit Schuld an dem Schlamassel sind. Weil wir nichts dagegen tun, sondern uns lieber von der Regierung weiter verarschen lassen.

Indes berichtet übrigens die Sunday Times (mal wieder), Russland und China hätten Snowdens Dokumente gehackt und die operative Sicherheit der Geheimdienste sei in Gefahr. Ryan Gallagher nimmt den Artikel an dieser Stelle auseinander, der SPIEGEL nimmt ihn ebenfalls aufs Korn. Offenbar fällt der Sunday Times auch nach über zwei Jahren Snowden immer noch nichts Neues ein. Also eigentlich alles beim Alten. Kommt mir bekannt vor.

“The bare beginning of reform”: two years on, Snowden’s work “has only begun”

When I think about the future, I think about the fact that there is still so much to be done. You know my work is not finished. In fact, I would argue that it has only begun.”

– Edward Snowden, May 2015

Two years ago, the Guardian began a series of revelations based on documents provided by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Since then, journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, DER SPIEGEL, the Guardian and The Intercept, based on the information provided by Snowden, have revealed the extensive and not always legal spying practises of the NSA, the British GCHQ and, most recently, the German BND.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Snowden praised the progress that has been made since he first brought the extensive spying conducted by the intelligence agencies to public attention. Still, he also cautioned that:

Though we have come a long way, the right to privacy… remains under threat. Some of the world’s most popular online services have been enlisted as partners in the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs, and technology companies are being pressured by governments around the world to work against their customers rather than for them. Billions of cellphone location records are still being intercepted without regard for the guilt or innocence of those affected… Metadata revealing the personal associations and interests of ordinary Internet users is still being intercepted and monitored on a scale unprecedented in history: As you read this online, the United States government makes a note.”


Spymasters in Australia, Canada and France have exploited recent tragedies to seek intrusive new powers despite evidence such programs would not have prevented attacks. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain recently mused, “Do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” He soon found his answer, proclaiming that “for too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: As long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.””

In Germany, journalist Kathrin Schmid noted that “reform” over the past two years has been three-fold: the German government has recently brought back mass data retention and strengthened the surveillance powers of its foreign and domestic intelligence agencies.

Therefore, while we have been able to witness surveillance reform in the US that gives grounds for cautious hope, other governments have regressed rather than progressed. We have a long way to go before the threat of turning democratic societies into police states dominated by “reaction and fear” rather than “resilience and reason”.

US Senate ends bulk collection of phone records

In the week leading up to the second anniversary of the first Snowden revelations, “[t]he US Senate… passed a bill to end the bulk collection of millions of Americans’ phone records, ushering in the country’s most significant surveillance reform since 1978” the Guardian reported on Wednesday.

The law is the USA Freedom Act, it will, as President Obama has put it, “strengthen civil liberty safeguards”, and, as John Cassidy points out in the New Yorker, it wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Edward Snowden. Its name seems ironic when you consider that despite the fact that the Freedom Act only exists because of Snowden, the US government is still threatening him with a loss of his liberty for a substantial amount of time should he return to the US.

What is more, while the passage of the Freedom Act is widely considered “a milestone”,

[b]arring the N.S.A. from collecting and holding the phone records of hundreds of millions of Americans…[t]he legislation leaves on the books a law from 1986 that allows the government to read any e-mail that is more than six months old, and it doesn’t change Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which the N.S.A. has used to justify collecting not just metadata, such as phone records, but the actual contents of communications, such as e-mails and online chats.”

Dan Fromkin in The Intercept calls the passing of the USA Freedom Act a

Small Step for Post-Snowden Reform, Giant Leap for Congress”,

noting that while

the Freedom Act represents the single greatest surveillance reform package since the 1970s… that’s a low bar.”

Snowden agrees that much more needs to be done, as he told the Guardian in a recent interview:

This is only the bare beginning of reform. There are still many bulk collection programmes out there… that are even more intrusive. What it says is that bad laws are not forever and if we work together, we can change them.”

While reform in the US, all things considered, is not that substantial, it is a start. And what’s happening in the US seems almost a luxury when compared to countries like Germany and the UK where both investigation into the questionable conduct of the agencies and surveillance reform are either sluggish or even non-existent.

The UK: new government keen to bring in the Snoopers’ Charter

In the UK, where the government ordered the destruction of the Guardian’s laptops in 2013, and “[p]ublic support for Snowden… was tepid”, the Conservative Party have recently been re-elected with an overall majority. I have previously commented on why I think this may prove to be a disaster. It certainly looks to be disastrous for privacy. Prime Minister Cameron’s Tories lost no time announcing that – now that there was no coalition partner to block it – they would urgently bring back the Draft Communications Data Bill, known to its critics as the Snoopers Charter and, beyond that, to expand existing surveillance powers for the GCHQ.

It doesn’t seem to concern anyone very much that at the start of this year, the British Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that “the sharing between Britain and the US of electronic communications intercepted in bulk was unlawful” for seven years. In a different but related matter, the Conservatives are also considering scrapping the Human Rights Act and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. It seems that two years after Snowden, David Cameron’s government indeed has its heart set on continuing its, as Snowden has put it, “extraordinary departure from the traditional operation of liberal societies”.”

PGP founder Phil Zimmerman’s worry that “[f]uture governments that come to power might not be [as] nice [as British society believes the current one to be], and if they inherit a surveillance infrastructure then they could use this to create an incumbency that cannot be changed” cannot be disregarded. Even more worrying, however, is the question how far into the future we actually have to look to see that happening. The way things are going now, perhaps not that far.

Given the limited interest in the UK in any debate surrounding surveillance in the two years since Edward Snowden stepped onto the world stage, Tim Berners-Lee’s call for Britons to “fight the government’s plans to extend the country’s surveillance powers, and act as a worldwide leader for promoting good governance on the web” seems like a rather optimistic and very long shot, even though, ironically, British intelligence officials secretly agree that

Snowden – love him or hate him – had changed the landscape; and that change towards transparency, or at least “translucency”, and providing more information about intelligence activities affecting privacy, was both overdue and necessary.”

Germany: mass data retention is back

Meanwhile, Germany is reeling from its own recent surveillance scandal, involving the cooperation of its foreign intelligence agency the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) with the NSA and what looks like several occasions on which the German government, nicely put, stretched the truth a little.

I wrote about much of that in one of my previous posts. Since then, it has emerged that while the German government told the German people in 2013 that they were negotiation a No-Spy-Agreement with the USA, it was in fact clear at the time that the USA would not agree to anything like that.

Speaking on NSA reform in the US, Snowden recently told the Guardian:

The idea that they can lock us out and there will be no change is no longer tenable. Everyone accepts these programmes were not effective, did not keep us safe and, even if they did, represent an unacceptable degradation of our rights.”

Sadly, the idea that government can lock out its citizens and make no changes seems very much tenable to the Merkel administration. In addition to allegedly lying about a No-Spy-Deal and their exact knowledge of the questionable conduct of their own BND in its relationship with the NSA, Merkel and her minions have also recently brought back mass data retention in Germany, even though the European Court of Justice struck it down in 2014. Previously, in 2010, Germany’s own constitutional court had declared mass data retention unconstitutional.

So, while Germans may be somewhat more vocal in their criticism of their government than Britons, the German administration seems about as impervious to that criticism – or in fact any backlash from the Snowden revelations – as the British government.

Snowden vindicated but still unable to go home

Edward Snowden remains in Russia where he was given asylum in 2013. Despite recent reforms that vindicate Snowden’s revelations, the US is not considering dropping the charges against him or offering a plea deal that would allow him to return home to the US. As Snowden is being charged, among other things, with violating the Espionage Act,

if he were to stand trial, he could not tell the jury what his whistleblowing has accomplished…Snowden would not even be able to utter the word “whistleblower” in court, let alone tell a jury why he did what he did.”

US government spokesman Josh Earnest recently “refused to comment on whether Snowden could be allowed to employ a whistleblower defence if he chose to return voluntarily, something his supporters have argued is impossible under current Espionage Act charges.”

The Guardian editorial board argues correctly that the argument over whether Edward Snowden is a traitor or a whistleblower should be over, now that

Capitol Hill has felt moved to right certain wrongs he exposed… He deserves a pardon at home, or else asylum in western Europe, for revealing truths that US lawmakers have recognised required a response.”

Sadly, none of that looks likely to happen. It seems that Jessica Schulberg is right when she writes in the Huffington Post that “[i]t’s hard to give credit to someone you want imprisoned.” And apparently, it’s equally hard for international governments to give asylum to someone who others want imprisoned, despite the fact that you could argue, as James Ball does, that

[o]f Snowden and the NSA [and, one might add, the GCHQ and Germany’s BND], only one has so far been found to have acted unlawfully – and it’s not Snowden.”