The Daily Star
June 18, 2013
By Michael Glackin
Somebody posted a witty tweet the other day. Responding to the revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency, which engages in signals intelligence and eavesdropping, has been busy tapping into the central servers of leading American Internet companies, someone tweeted, “Your Gmail, Google, Facebook, Skype data all in one place. The NSA just beat out like 30 start-ups to this idea.”
No doubt the NSA has the tweeter’s details and inside leg measurements on file by now. However, the pervasive invasion into our privacy that PRISM represents is no laughing matter.
PRISM is a U.S. government program which, since 2007, has been collecting audio, video, photos, emails and documents from non-Americans whose information passes through servers located in the United States. This enables America’s spooks to learn and collect a great deal of information about their foreign targets, and the servers that have been accessed belong to such major companies as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, as well as various telephone companies.
Google, Apple, Yahoo and Facebook have denied the NSA has “direct access” to their servers, while Microsoft said it only complies “with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers.”
GCHQ, the British government’s equivalent of the NSA, has had access to much of PRISM’s material since late 2010, according to a report in The Guardian. Along with The Washington Post, the paper was given details of PRISM by Edward Snowden.
There are many who say “so what?” If you are not doing anything wrong, they argue, then you have nothing to fear from the NSA or GCHQ. They are wrong. You do not have to be a paranoid privacy conspiracy theorist to see the dangers inherent in what the U.S. and the U.K. are colluding to do. The revelations come less than a month after the British government was forced to scrap a proposal to allow the security services access to the online communications and Internet browsing history of individuals – the so-called “Snoopers Charter” – following strong opposition from the government’s own parliamentarians.
Yet if Snowden’s allegations are true, and what has been published is convincing in its detail, then the British government already has its Snoopers Charter. GCHQ’s access to PRISM data allows it to circumvent both the existing legal process required to obtain personal material from Internet companies and, more worryingly, ignore the will of parliament. Powers allowing for greater surveillance of British citizens that the elected parliament has authorized are already being used by government agencies through a backdoor deal with the NSA.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted last week that the claims GCHQ used data from PRISM to circumvent British law were “baseless.” But The Guardian reported that in the year leading up to May 2012, the first full year the U.K. had access to PRISM data, GCHQ was able to generate 197 intelligence reports for the British security services. This was more than double the number generated in the previous year when the U.K. first gained access to the program.
I lived in Eastern Germany not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The powers used by the NSA bear a chilling resemblance to the way former East Germans recounted how their lives were devastated by the Stasi’s intrusions into their privacy, intercepting their mail, listening to their calls, getting gossip from their neighbors. How the Stasi would have loved to be doing their job in the Internet age.
And where does all this end? How long before governments decide that it’s not just terror or criminal behavior they are interested in?
The U.K. Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in 2001, is a case in point. This act was hurriedly passed into law immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Even against that backdrop, it was still labeled by one critic as “the most draconian legislation parliament has passed in peacetime in over a century,” particularly since many of its measures, despite the act’s official title, were not specifically related to terrorism.
This legislation was most famously used not to fight terror, but to fight an ally. At the height of the global banking crisis in 2008, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown used the act to freeze all Icelandic assets in the U.K., after Reykjavik failed to guarantee British deposits held by Icelandic banks. The move effectively put Iceland on par with states that sponsored terrorism, and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It was a disgraceful use of the legislation against a nation that was not only a member of NATO, but also had troops serving in Afghanistan in the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit.
The 2001 act also allowed communication service providers to retain some data, though not content, so this could be accessed by security services investigating criminal and terrorist activity. What is clear is that when governments can already bend existing law to an extent that was never anticipated by citizens, you have to wonder why they even bother with parliament at all.
While often the British Parliament is merely a rubber stamp for the executive arm of government, occasionally it can rise to the occasion, as it has by rejecting the Snoopers Charter. Sadly, the opposition Labor Party, which preaches liberty but practices control, is set to back the government, enabling it to reintroduce the Snoopers Charter. Labor insists it is a “vital tool” in combating terrorism.
Of course there are terrorists and others from whom the U.K. needs to be protected. But we must also ensure that by protecting our way of life we do not trample over the civil liberties that underpin the way of life we are trying to protect. The hard-earned rights and liberties of people pursuing their daily affairs must be safeguarded too.
The great statesman of revolutionary America, Benjamin Franklin, put it well when he said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Or to put it another way, there are none so dangerous to democracy as those who seek to protect it from its own virtues.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 18, 2013, on page 7.