PRISM – The British Dimension

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.


  1. Anonymous

    it seems to me that there are a few main problems.
    1) as a nation, we are too eager to bend over and grab ankles as soon as the USA tells us too. you are, in my opinion, dead right when you say that what the USA does is in the interests only of the USA. they do not care what happens to any other nation or person in that nation. they are treated as collateral damage! as long as the USA gets what it set out to get, that’s the main thing!
    2)those in the UK government are far to quick and too keen to use anything that happens as a springboard to get a law that was just rejected reintroduced. this is a practice that has again come from the USA.
    3) the fact that there are far too many powerful people that not only dont want things to change, refuse to allow things to change by delaying or removing options of votes. they are very keen on ensuring that certain industries get whatever it is that they want, usually because of the vested interest in that particular company. look at how the entertainment industries have changed laws, had new laws introduced, changed ‘crime’ classification, turned the ‘innocent unless proven guilty’ doctrine completely round the other way, managed to get stiffer prison sentences for those who file share than those who commit what people usually class as serious crimes, like rape, robbery, killing someone. look at how they have managed to get Internet Censorship not just introduced, making the EU and other so-called democracies look ridiculous when challenging countries like China, but expanded#. i wonder what/who will be next to be blocked, what excuse will be used and when, if ever, now it has become established, it will stop. the Internet was given to the world for free. now it is not only owned but is being controlled by, of all things, the fucking entertainment industries and the USA entertainment industries in particular! what a come down for the best platform for all things, invented to date! everything that these industries have said bad about the net will become the exact opposite before long, simply because they will be controlling it, the one thing more than any other that they could not handle! we are as a society going to regret this, wait and see! these industries are interested in stopping or at least delaying all advancement in all things. they have already drastically slowed communications platforms, all through jealousy and greed! what a tragedy!

    1. London-Anonymous

      One should also be wary of the emerging mindset in the British populous that these laws and events which are taking place, transparently or opaquely, beneath their very noses are ludicrous, so ludicrous in fact that many people refuse to believe that they are true.

      Worse still, are people who believe that what is taking place is true, and understand what is actually happening, but still believe that because they have nothing to hide, nothing is wrong with these acts. Sometimes, it seems, that people genuinely want to give away their liberties.

      1. Pirate Gurra

        I am afraid you are right. The British people at large maybe don’t understand any better. WWII is slowly fading out of memory and they haven’t seen the uglies of surveillance as were in Eastern Europe, which for instance the citizens aged 40+ in Poland and Eastern Germany have.

        There are still very nice britons – I met some this week during my short vacation last week. I’m really concerned Britain is heading towards a surveillance police state. Most of them deserve a lot better!!

  2. […] PRISM – The British Dimension […]

  3. steelneck

    Last scentence of the leading paragraph.. You already have. Just look at London, there have never ever in the history of man kind existed a city with more surveillance than London of toady, never. What you have is Niemuller all over again, first they came for.. but you did not care since you are not.. and so on. This will probably not end without bloodshed, it is way past that threshold, we are just waiting for the strong man who will rise out of the democrasy as protector, just as already Plato described. History do repeat itself, but ecerytime in new ways out of new sircumstances, partly because the politics is a beeing without memory.

    The basis for democracy is forgotten toady. People think democracy is to vote, but the citizens in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik got to vote a lot mote often than we did, but they did not have a free formation of opinion, that requires private communication among other liberties. Time and again we get reminded not to forget, usually about the holocaust, but we have forgotten. We have forgotten just those very important things that are needed so that it will happen again, that is why it will. It will happen again, but not in the way targeting the same people because the world is different. Many things have changed, but not the underlying forces in the human nature that alredy the old greek pholosophers decribed. The greeks did not have the safegusards that we had, those that we are now discarding in an aver increasing rate, to feel safe..

    Why does the UK and most other western coutries bend over when the american empire asks us to? There are reasons to this, as you may very well know if you think about it. There are only two countries in the world that can balance that imperial power with a unipolar agenda, but things will become bery messy if they do it for real.

    1. Corwin

      Why are you waiting for a savior? Get on it, human. You can think, talk, walk and use tools, right?

      1. steelneck

        Ohh Corwin you misunderstood me, i am not waiting for a savior, i am talking about the society at large. Things are going to get worse, much worse, and when that time comes a lot of people will call for protection. The tyrant will easily get to power in a democracy when it is sidestepping the safeguards that protect the free formation of opinion, and thus real alternatives when we vote. This is what the society has forgotten when it dismantles basic freedoms and rights “to protect us” from nightmares (nightmares are not more true than good dreams..). The protection we need from society is on the contrary a society that protect our basic rights and freedom. If the issue really was about giving up freedom to save lives, then the money would be better spent sanding pavements in the winter, taking care of inequalities leading to ghettos and gang violence and such things. But this is not about that, it is just the excuse. This is rather the same type of development that already the old greeks described, how the power grabs more power, initially with good intentions. You know, the road to hell is paved with those..

        The more power we as a society grants to some entity, to protect us, the more it must stand under control, checks and balances. Not the other way around where those with power can act without public scrutiny and ordinary citizens are spied upon by those in power.

  4. marklar

    All your Brit stiff upper lips are belong to us. Sorry, just couldn’t help myself.

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