“Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society.
I call on all Web users to demand better legal protection and due process safeguards for the privacy of their online communications, including their right to be informed when someone requests or stores their data.
A store of this information about each person is a huge liability: Whom would you trust to decide when to access it, or even to keep it secure?”
Thus Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, upon learning of the covert Prism operation, which has been reported extensively in The Guardian. According to their report, “The US-run programme, called Prism, would appear to allow GCHQ to circumvent the formal legal process required to seek personal material such as emails, photos and videos from an internet company based outside the UK…the papers describe the remarkable scope of a previously undisclosed “snooping” operation which gave the NSA and the FBI easy access to the systems of nine of the world’s biggest internet companies. The group includes Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype.” It is clear that the government is none too keen to have this matter discussed in the public forum.
Listening to BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions debate the issue yesterday, the major point of concern to the government minister on the programme appeared to be that in his opinion and experience, GCHQ had always been scrupulous to operate within the law. This is a neat way of avoiding the real point at issue, which is that the law on security matters is more or less irrelevant if the stakes are sufficiently high. Secrecy or judicial immunity for security service personnel can be justified on national security grounds, and if inconveniences such as the human rights of the accused should threaten to intervene, there is always the option of extraordinary rendition, with any subsequent awkward questions firmly kicked into the long grass. As the Guardian reported, the government’s critics have not been unobservant of these trends: “All too often in the years after 9/11, they argued, official secrecy and denials, and in camera courtroom procedure, concealed evidence of serious criminal wrongdoing on the part both of MI5 and MI6, and the ministers of the last government to whom the agencies answered.” Yet this seems now to be the status quo; the security services engage in alleged “serious criminal wrongdoing”, but are effectively unaccountable to anyone. There is no genuine prospect of effective public scrutiny of these cases, nor in – it would appear – obtaining any form of redress for their alleged victims in respect of criminal convictions.
I have no doubt that this situation suits the governments of the UK and USA very well indeed. The UK, of course, has pursued a relationship with the USA that was well depicted by Gerald Scarfe when he showed the head of Tony Blair emerging somewhat petulantly from George W. Bush’s fundament. If there has been any great change to that “special relationship” under Cameron and Obama, I struggle to see it. When the USA wishes to target a British citizen, using that unique combination of entrapment and plea bargains that passes for justice there, the British government not merely stands by impotently but extradites its own citizens – something the USA almost never does. Nor should we think that this policy has changed in the light of the recent Gary McKinnon decision, which seems to have been merely an exception proving the rule.
What should concern us in particular is the compromise of justice in the United States in favour of powerful corporate and political interests. For all that I find a good deal to criticize in our own justice system, we are still some considerable way from the point that they have reached, where the financial and lobbying muscle of the multinationals and the protectionism of the political class unites with the residual legacy of fundamentalist Puritanism at its least forgiving. I would like to think that had Aaron Swartz been British, our justice system would not have hounded him to the point of suicide. I do not believe that had Bradley Manning been British, he would be facing such insuperable odds as are stacked against him in his current court-martial. I am increasingly sympathetic to Julian Assange‘s actions in seeking to avoid what he believes is inevitable extradition to the USA by holing up in the Ecuadorian embassy. All three men have in common that they are or were public activists against the American establishment. What they have said threatens the powerful, and the action against them seems at once designed to ensure that they should be broken, silenced and that a message is sent to others that if they act similarly they will face the same fate. If this is not tyranny, I don’t know what is.
The current revelations about Prism show that the problem is growing rather than receding. Governments have for many years used the argument of increasing public safety (against terrorism or other threats) as cover for compromising individual privacy and rights. Moreover, the USA has been extremely belligerent in its attitude to the national rights of others, believing itself to hold a position of moral superiority that justifies outright “regime change” (Iraq, Panama etc.) In the case of New Zealand resident Kim Dotcom, charges from the USA concerning alleged copyright infringement were used as justification for an illegal raid and “fishing expedition” with the FBI copying hard drives and sending their contents back to the USA. If Prism is what it appears to be, then this is the sort of behaviour that may well be repeated before long.
Dotcom characterizes his fight as “U.S. Government vs. You & Kim Dotcom” and he is right to do so. Dotcom’s fight against the IP lobby is a fight for freedom of expression that is ultimately as vital as that of the political whistleblowers, and in that it involves the battleground of electronic communications, is intimately connected with theirs. The protections granted to activists and to those whose views are politically unpopular or controversial are among the most significant and the most vulnerable for a free society. Yet these are now under active threat, and the threat comes not from the expected old enemies of free speech but from a superpower that we are told is our ally, using rights that we have never authorized our government to give to them. Standing up to the USA will come at a price, perhaps a heavy one, but it is a price we must pay if we are not to find ourselves watching our every word and action online.