This month, The Guardian newspaper confirmed what many advocates of internet freedom already suspected: that the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) had been monitoring the private online activities of people all over the world, including US citizens. According to whistleblower Edward Snowden, many Internet giants such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Skype, and AOL pariticipate in a clandestine program codenamed Prism. According to the Guardian, “The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.”
The UK GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), meanwhile, has been accused of using information obtained by the NSA to generate 197 of its own intelligence reports. The legal status of this act is undisputed, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former UK foreign secretary, has said:
The law is actually quite clear. If the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of emails about people living in the UK then they actually have to get lawful authority. Normally that means ministerial authority. That applies equally whether they are going to do the intercept themselves or whether they are going to ask somebody else to do it on their behalf.
More recently, it has emerged that the GCHQ spied on foreign politicians at the G20 summit meetings in 2009. Russia, South Africa, and Turkey have reacted with rage to the news. Clearly this is a scandal that affects citizens all over the globe, and as Edward Snowden himself said, reflects ‘an existential threat to democracy.’ With the information emerging in the same week as the beginning of the Bradley Manning trial, it will be interesting to note what the outcome is.
The situation is especially interesting considering Obama’s stance on the proposed CISPA law. On the one hand, the Obama administration threatened to veto the cybersecurity bill, claiming that it did not provide enough protections for privacy. But on the other hand, we now know that the administration was already using Prism to monitor the online activities of millions of people. In theory Prism and the NSA’s data surveillance efforts more generally are supposed to target only non-US individuals and entities, the secrecy of the programs makes it difficult to assess the the efficacy of any supposed privacy protections.
In his interview with the Guardian, Snowden mentioned how he “watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.” James Goodale, the First Amendment lawyer who represented the New York Times against the Nixon administration, has very publicly stated that he believes Obama to be comparable to Nixon when it comes to the issue of press freedom. After the Associated Press scandal (where it was found that the Obama administration had secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press), Goodale said that where he had once “had Obama, in baseball terms, half a game out of first behind Nixon,” he now had “him tied and inching ahead.” After this fresh scandal, it is likely he would put Obama ahead of Nixon by quite a stretch.
Now that this information is public, it remains to be seen what can and what will be done. Glenn Greenwald has astutely pointed out “a defining attribute of the Obama legacy: the transformation of what was until recently a symbol of rightwing radicalism – warrantless eavesdropping – into meekly accepted bipartisan consensus.” It seems that many of Obama’s supporters have been able to accept the erosion of their fundamental rights with the unwavering belief that Obama simply must know what’s right. Perhaps only now will many of these same supporters recognise what Edward Snowden recognised, that Obama has “advanced the very policies [they all thought] would be reined in.”
In an interview with Wired.co.uk, Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School has advised that the solution for concerned individuals is simple: “Quit Facebook and use another search engine […] It’s nice to keep in touch with your friends. But I think if you find out if it’s true that these companies are involved in these surveillance programs you should just quit.” In reality, this provides little comfort, as the leaks have shown that you’d have to unplug from almost every aspect of the Internet and mobile technology in order to escape suveillance. As one letter to the Guardian said, it has “shocked us awake to find that we are already living within a mature, widely embedded Orwellian nightmare.”
Despite this Orwellian nightmare, it is comforting that there are individuals who care so much about Internet freedom and privacy that they are willing to risk harsh punishments. Edward Snowden chose to leak classified material despite witnessing the fate of Bradley Manning, who provided classified documents to Wikileaks. We can hope that the information Snowden revealed will enable an international conversation about balancing privacy Internet freedom with national security.
Jean-Loup Richet, Special Herdict Contributor