Loz Kaye, leader of the UK Pirate Party, gives a view from the UK about the NSA PRISM revelations: The cultural sense among ordinary people in the UK actually goes very counter to taking authoritarian steps into people’s privacy, Kaye writes, and the sense that the US is legally ignoring UK liberties is disturbing. It is up to us to keep pressing these questions to make sure we don’t sleepwalk in to a society where all of us are suspicious until proven innocent, he writes.
So many of us who have seen Edward Snowden’s video on his reasons for exposing the PRISM programme have found it moving and disturbing in equal parts. But I think it was this that he said that struck me the most:
“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently … They can use this system to go back in time and scrutinise every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with… to derive suspicion from an innocent life…”
These are exactly the dangers the Pirate Party has been warning of for some time now.
Of course much of the focus in the PRISM story has been on the United States, the NSA and Obama. But the United Kingdom is right at the heart of this scandal too. Not least because of the Guardian’s role in breaking the leaks, but also because of the allegations of British Intelligence service use of PRISM information.
I think outside the UK people have the impression that we are all too similar to the US. This has no doubt much to do with our willingness to enter in to wars with the Americans in recent years without asking too many questions. Our biggest two political parties Conservative and Labour seem almost interchangeable in their authoritarian tendencies. With a few, a very few, honourable exceptions. But we are actually a very free minded people. Time and again we have pushed back against state excesses. Plans for national identity cards, not even seen as much of an issue in many European countries, were ditched by the incoming government as too intrusive.
In a country where many still have net curtains to cover windows, the idea that we might be routinely “watched and recorded” goes against the fundamental cultural sense that an Englishman and woman’s home is their castle.
What is staggering is that we have just had a long public debate on this very issue of whether the blanket collection of UK citizens’ communication records is acceptable. The Communications Data Bill law – unsurprisingly dubbed the “Snoopers’ Charter” – had many of the traits of PRISM that are most alarming. This was thrown out in the face of an outcry from civil liberties activists, and it was rejected as it could not be supported by all of the Government.
But essentially, that entire debate was had on a false basis. It appears the very type of access to email, videos, chat and social media that was supposed to be consulted on was already being used against us since at least the beginning of the current government. If that was the case why bother to consult the public or parliament at all?
The Foreign Secretary William Hague, the minister responsible for security agency GCHQ, did come to make a statement to parliament on the affair, even if he didn’t actually say much. The minister was directly asked when he knew about PRISM. He declined to answer. But whether the answer is since June 2010 or last Thursday it is still bad for Mr Hague. If the answer is the former then he was happy for us to seem to have a democratic choice when none existed at all. If the answer is the latter then he simply doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s difficult to decide which is worse.
Repeatedly he would not answer questions about the actual important issue which is the manner and scope of the data collection, citing security concerns. No-one was asking him to reveal operational details or compromise anything specific. Data collection was precisely what was being looked at in the Communications Data Bill, but it was never suggested that the principles behind it could not be discussed. Why is PRISM different?
The Foreign Secretary sought to reassure lawmakers that any collaboration between GCHQ and the NSA happens within a strict legal framework which ministers sign off on. Let’s leave aside that we in Pirate Party UK have serious reservations about the framework itself. It still doesn’t answer the fundamental problem that Edward Snowden brings up: what about the people who are doing nothing wrong? Mr Hague bizarrely leaves average citizens without support while those who are of concrete interest to the security services have more safeguards.
Crucially doubt remains about whether UK law applies still if it is material that is offered by the NSA rather than requested. Matthew Ryder QC explained in the Guardian: “Foreigners storing their personal data on US servers have neither the protection that their own domestic laws would give them from their own governments, nor the protection that US citizens have from the US government.” That at least is surely a legitimate point to clear up, and how the offering/requesting distinction is managed in practice.
Perhaps the Foreign Secretary is making the familiar mistake of assuming that the UK and the US are basically the same. What I was astounded by watching our parliament was the inability to realise that US spying is for the benefit of the US. What about the US interest in snooping on UK citizens, and for that matter our businesses and government? We heard much about how vital it was to protect our citizens. In the 21st century I would have thought it was obvious that that should start with our personal information. Where are our 4th amendment rights? And actually US citizens are entitled to ask GCHQ the same thing. All of this cuts both ways.
What will simply not wash is expecting on trust that the Americans will operate under our legal frameworks. This is where as a country we have been too close to the US. We have repeatedly followed along in their wake, just accepting torture, rendition, indefinite detention and summary execution by drone. Mr Hague may dismiss these as “controversies”. I would call them the reasons why the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ doctrine is dangerously complacent.
Despite the considerable danger that he must now be in, Snowden’s biggest fear is that nothing will come of these revelations. It is up to us to keep pressing these questions to make sure we don’t sleepwalk in to a society where all of us are suspicious until proven innocent.
This article is also available in other languages: Italian.