When we talk about surveillance online, it is almost always with reference to the NSA and activities in the US. But US citizens are far from being the only web users affected by surveillance. The NSA has long arms, but there are also similar activities going on in plenty of other countries. Last week, the UK government began pushing through legislation that requires phone and Internet companies to store information about customers' communications, and to hand it over to authorities on request. What made this particularly unusual was the fact that this was classed as emergency surveillance legislation with little to no debate and, more importantly, no public consultation whatsoever. Edward Snowden has plenty say on the matter, likening the British government to the NSA.
The legislation covers not only UK-based companies, but also those based in other countries who have gathered data about UK customers. It is in direct opposition to a recent European court ruling that said retention of data was a violation of European law. This in itself would be reason for any surveillance-related laws to be debated, but the government chose instead to use emergency measures - usually reserved for times of war or disaster - to push through laws it knows will prove unpopular. As we are now used to hearing, the surveillance is not about recording phone calls, or storing individual emails and text messages, but about retaining the related metadata - who contacted who, when, for how long, from where, and so on.
But as has already been seen in the US, this dragnet style of surveillance means that the lives of countless innocent people are impacted upon. Point the finger at everyone and you’re sure to catch a criminal. Still holed up in Russia, former NSA worker Edward Snowden spoke with the Guardian in a mammoth seven hour interview. During the interview he compared the British government's legislation to something that could have been written by the NSA:
Prime Minister David Cameron has tried to justify the legislation which has angered privacy and civil liberties groups. "Sometimes in the dangerous world in which we live, we need our security services to listen to someone's phone and read their emails to identify and disrupt a terrorist plot. As prime minister I know of examples where doing this has stopped a terrorist attack". If this sounds like familiar scaremongering, it should. It's nothing we haven't heard before...
"We face real and credible threats to our security from serious and organised crime, from the activity of paedophiles, from the collapse of Syria, the growth of Isis in Iraq and al-Shabaab in east Africa". Yeah - we’ve heard it all before, David. Would you like to read my mail before it drops through my letterbox as well? Or would gathering the metadata about who has written to me be enough? Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg bowed under pressure, but was quick to defend himself. "I have only agreed to this emergency legislation because we can use it to kickstart a proper debate about freedom and security in the Internet age". But the legislation has been widely condemned as a "stitch-up by the elite".
There is simply no justification for blanket surveillance. It does not make sense in any world. The number of man hours, the amount of expense, the number of false leads, the sheer volume of data is staggering. My opinion is divided when it comes to Edward Snowden. I applaud what he has done - it was an extremely brave move to essentially stand up to the US government as a one-man army - but I do find that he is something of an odd figurehead for privacy. But this is just a personal thing. Snowden is a modern day hero, and he has forced more people to do what they do not do often enough - question authority and those in power. When something is done either in your name or for your benefit, it is only right that you have a say in how things are tackled. With both the NSA's activities and the UK government's "emergency" legislation (I feel from this point forward, I have to wrap that word in quotes lest I legitimise the government's actions).
Snowden speaks complete sense when he says the government is looking to get new laws in place "immediately without any debate, just taking their word for it, despite the fact that these exact same authorities were just declared unlawful by the European court of justice". But more important is the question he poses: "Is it really going to be so costly for us to take a few days to debate where the line should be drawn about the authority and what really serves the public interest? If these surveillance authorities are so interested, so invasive, the courts are actually saying they violate fundamental rights, do we really want to authorise them on a new, increased and more intrusive scale without any public debate?"
We are very much in the dark about what is happening. Limp-wristed references to national security, foreign threats and the like are meaningless (how many illegal wars have been started with any of these given as justification?). As Snowden says: "What's extraordinary about this law being passed in the UK is that it very closely mirrors the Protect America Act 2007 that was passed in the United States at the request of the National Security Agency, after the warrantless wire-tapping program, which was unlawful and unconstitutional, was revealed".
For all the talk of living in a democracy, the fact that laws like this can be passed with no public consultation is unbelievable. The public is not being properly informed about what is happening, what the implications are, and what, if anything, they can do to get involved. For this to be happening in modern politics is a disgrace. I'm with Snowden on this one - I'm absolutely furious. I know I'm not alone, and I can only hope that a groundswell of opposition to mass surveillance and data retention as used by the NSA and UK government will force those involved to engage in meaningful debate.