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At the start of June 2013, a large number of documents detailing surveillance by intelligence agencies such as the US’s NSA and UK’s GCHQ started to be revealed, based on information supplied by NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden.
These leaks revealed a massive surveillance program that included interception of email and other Internet communications and phone call tapping. Some of it appears illegal, while other revelations show the US spying on friendly nations during various international summits.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of furor. While some countries are no doubt using this to win some diplomatic points, there has been increased tensions between the US and other regions around the world.
Much of the US surveillance programs came from the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001. Concerns about a crackdown on civil rights in the wake of the so-called
war on terror have been expressed for a long time, and these revelations seem to be confirming some of those fears.
Given the widespread collection of information, apparently from central servers of major Internet companies and from other core servers that form part of the Internet backbone, activities of millions (if not billions) of citizens have been caught up in a dragnet style surveillance problem called PRISM, even when the communication has nothing to do with terrorism.
What impacts would such secretive mass surveillance have on democracy?
On this page:
- Secrecy; US Congress unaware of mass NSA surveillance program
- If you’ve got nothing to hide…
- Access to vasts amount of user data from Internet Giants
- Internet Governance
- Americans and citizens of other countries
- Spying on friendly countries and international institutions
- US mainstream media focus on Edward Snowden
- Privatization of surveillance means even less accountability?
- More information
Secrecy; US Congress unaware of mass NSA surveillance program
One of the major concerns in the US has been how members of the US Congress themselves were not aware at how vast the activities were. Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist that published the documents from Edward Snowden wrote a follow-up article a week after the initial revelations. He noted Democratic Representative Loretta Sanchez’s comments said after Congress was given a classified briefing by NSA officials on the agency’s previously secret surveillance activities that what was revealed was just the
tip of the iceberg and that it is
broader than most people even realize. She added that most of them in that session were astounded to learn some of this.
Greenwald continued to reflect on the gravity of what she said:
And even the original author of the controversial Patriot Act, has argued that the current metadata collection is
unbounded in scope. He added that the vast majority of records collected have nothing to do with investigating terrorism, and asked,
How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?
Greenwald also makes an interesting observation about partisanship and describes how in 2006 the Democrats were very clearly opposed to this kind of secret surveillance that Republicans had spear-headed in the aftermatch of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. And he contrasts that with how defensive Democrats have been this time round. He also points to this interesting YouTube video that summarizes this (though read the article, too!)
If you’ve got nothing to hide…
Defenders of these programs have often argued that if you have nothing to hide then you should not worry about this invasion of privacy.
Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, responded as to why you should care:
And, John Naughton, writing in The Observer, adds:
The other thing Hague overlooks is how the UK’s GCHQ used very deceptive means to intercept communications during important G20 summits to understand the private positions of other governments, including regimes friendly with the UK. This included setting up fake Internet cafes, installing spyware such as keyloggers, and intercepting emails.
It has often been thought that all governments would like to (or do) perform some form of spying and espionage during international meetings, and it is sometimes in the national interest to do so (or at least can be argued that way).
In addition, as the journal Foreign Policy revealed, the US spied on its own citizens as far back as the Vietnam war, including spying on two of its own sitting senior senators and prominent figures such as Martin Luther King, boxer Muhammad Ali, and others. This wasn’t with congressional oversight, but at the White House’s behest; an abuse of power, as the journal also noted.
But it has been rarely possible to prove such suspicions, until now. Another important example was the US and UK’s efforts to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the various UN meetings about Iraq-related resolutions, where the US and UK were thought to be spying on friends and others.
if you have nothing to hide argument misses a fundamental point; having such vasts amount of data, potentially unnecessarily when collected via a dragnet style system, is awaiting abuse. The NSA and others currently claim they are not abusing their roles (but we have already heard them lie to Congress, so they are already facing public trust issues which is hard for a secretive organization anyway), but with all this data, it is the potential to abuse it (internally, or through hacks, etc) that is the privacy concern here. Secrecy (especially in a democracy) by-passes checks and balances. In the case of the US, who strongly claim there is legal and judicial oversight in these things, it is still done in secrecy; it is not clear how much personal data of ordinary citizens (of the US and rest of the world) is caught in this.
Access to vasts amount of user data from Internet Giants
Another aspect of the US/NSA spying story was the involvement of Internet giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter.
It was claimed that the NSA had some kind of backdoor or direct access to the vasts amount of data these companies have on their users, which the Internet titans vigorously denied. In some ways, these denials appear to be spin as companies have to comply with legal surveillance requests and the information may not technically be shared via backdoors.
On the other hand, companies are not legally allowed to acknowledge certain types of intelligence requests so legally there can be vasts amounts of data sharing but the secrecy surrounding it means it is not clear how much privacy invasion is legitimate or not.
But at the very least it emerged there were possibly thousands of requests for virtually all data for various users they would target. And that the NSA were able to capture a vast amount of Internet data.
Edward Snowden told the Hong Kong-based South China Post that there had been more than 61,000 hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the [Chinese] mainland.
We hack network backbones–like huge Internet routers, basically–that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one, Snowden added.
And some companies are only too willing to sell to the US government to support these activities. For example, Inter Press Service notes a Californian company offering US government agencies software to intercept signals on undersea cables that can be used to analyze all sorts of popular Internet services, such as Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
It is interesting to note that a few months earlier the US was resisting what seemed like international efforts to put the stewardship of the Internet in the hands of the United Nations rather than being a decentralized system (though with the US having final say over the changes to certain aspects of the core, or root, Internet servers).
At the time, much of the technology community and others argued that the US is a good defender of the Internet (and helped create it in the first place), and that putting it into the hands of the UN was really the agenda of nations like Russia, China and others with questionable records on human rights. Examples such as surveillance and censorship were given as reasons to not trust other governments. And forums and blogs were filled with the usual over-simplistic UN-bashing that the US is often known for.
The US, by comparison, (probably rightly) argued that the current decentralized system works well. Internet giants such as Google also weighed in along similar lines, as did various Internet freedom activist organizations and individuals.
Unfortunately, even with the current system, governments unfortunately can sensor large portions of the Internet if they want to. But as the recent spying episode has revealed as well, this is perhaps another reason for the US not wanting to relinquish control of such a globally valuable resource. Being able to tap into some of the core Internet servers, many of which are based in the US or US-friendly nations, gives it an advantage of other countries and entities.
In other words, if even within the current system countries like China and Russia can censor and monitor the Internet why do they care about wanting more control? Larry Geller gives an example:
Americans and citizens of other countries
Some of the scandal in the US has been that the surveillance by NSA has included American citizens. Lost in that concern is the privacy of non-US citizens. It almost appears that mainstream US media are not too worried about that. But citizens around the world are rightly out-raged.
It is not like the US-based services (such as those from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and others) are easily replaceable. Not only do people around the world rely on these services, but those companies rely on people around the world using their services too.
Being global services, the idea of nation states and citizen rights have not really evolved quickly enough to cater for the changes being brought about by the Internet. (It has similarly been argued that the way corporations are pushing for a neoliberal form of globalization, nation states are struggling to cope with that, too, so there is perhaps a real issue of democracy and people’s rights in a new world that is fundamentally at stake.)
Spying on friendly countries and international institutions
Breaking UN protocol at a General Assembly meeting of all members states Brazil strongly criticized the US for illegally infiltrating its communications network, intercepting phone calls, and breaking into the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations. President Dilma Rousseff dismissed the US argument that such activities were to counter terrorism. Instead, she argued,
corporate information — often of high economic and even strategic value — was at the center of espionage activities.
Reports also surfaced of the US spying on the United Nations and various European countries, including the office of the European Union at the UN. The US had managed to crack the UN’s internal video teleconferencing system, as part of its surveillance of the world body.
Leading technology web site, Ars Technica, also adds that the NSA also runs a bugging program in more than 80 embassies and consulates around the world, under a program called the
Special Collection Service, an
intensive program that has
little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists, according to Der Spiegel.
US mainstream media focus on Edward Snowden
When Edward Snowden made his revelations he hoped the focus would be on the issues, not on him or his plight. But as many have known for many years, the US mainstream media is rarely able to do reporting of serious issues; sensationalism and focusing on individuals are easier to do compared to tackling core issues which can hold power to account (be it government, corporate or otherwise).
In a Q&A session with The Guardian, he noted that
Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.
In the US, much of the focus had become about whether he was a traitor or not; he felt there was no chance of a fair trial in the US because the US had openly accused and judged him of treason. In response to questions about whether he was a traitor he added
When asked how the treatment of other whistleblowers influenced him, he had a profound challenge for President Obama:
Privatization of surveillance means even less accountability?
Chris Pyle, a former military instructor exposed the CIA and Army’s monitoring of millions of Americans engaged in lawful political activity in the 1970s. His revelations ultimately leading to a series of laws aimed at curbing government abuses.
He was recently interviewed by the excellent Democracy Now! about the recent NSA revelations and echoed concerns raised by others; about lack of knowledge and oversight by Congress and that the secrecy is out of control.
But he also adds that privatization of surveillance (70% percent of the intelligence budget of the United States today goes to private contractors, Democracy Now! notes) is resulting in a lack of accountability and importantly a way for governments to shirk their legal responsibilities;
the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, only binds the government, doesn’t bind corporations. That’s a serious problem, he notes.
This web site will probably not be able to keep up with new revelations as they are published. However, there are a number of sites that are worth following on this issue. In addition, the IPS news feed that this site carries will also cover this.
Other web sites
Here are a number of web sites that have further information and can cover this story as it happens far quicker than this web site can:
News stories from IPS
Below is a list of stories from Inter Press Service related to this issue.
NEW YORK, Apr 08 (IPS) – Governments all over the world have been considering cellphone surveillance to help track and contain the spread of the coronavirus.
NEW YORK, Feb 19 (IPS) – As reporters for Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper, Samuel Ogundipe and Azeezat Adedigba told CPJ they spoke often over the phone. They had no idea that their regular conversations about work and their personal lives were creating a record of their friendship.
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 14 (IPS) – The United Nations faces renewed criticism over its partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Misk Foundation amid revelations that the charity is headed by the mastermind of a recent Twitter spying operation.
NEW YORK, Apr 16 (IPS) – Alex Ellerbeck* is North America Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists & Avi Asher-Schapiro* is North America Research Associate
After a seven-year standoff at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, British police last week arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange–a development press freedom advocates had long feared.
MARRAKECH, Morocco, Dec 12 (IPS) – IPS correspondent Steven Nsamaza interviews CLAUDIA INTERIANO from Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democratico de Derecho.
Claudia Interiano from Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democratico de Derecho, a Latin American organisation that works to access justice for persons killed or missing during transit through Mexico to the United States, spoke to IPS about the foreseeable future of migration in a world after the end of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) conference.
NEW YORK, Jan 26 (IPS) – On January 10, radio journalists Darsema Sori and Khalid Mohammed were released from prison after serving lengthy sentences related to their work at the Ethiopian faith-based station Radio Bilal. Despite their release and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s promise earlier this month to free political prisoners, Ethiopia’s use of imprisonment, harassment, and surveillance means that the country continues to be a hostile environment for journalists.
Nov 20 (IPS) – “The present government has taken measures that go beyond anything the previous military juntas did”, according to legal expert Sercan Aran of the trade union confederation KESK. The army has previously registered personal data and the private political opinions of suspected dissidents, but always under secrecy.
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Jul 18 (IPS) – Southern African countries have agreed on a multi-pronged plan to increase surveillance and research to contain the fall army worm, which has cut forecast regional maize harvests by up to ten percent, according to a senior U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) official.
KUALA LAMPUR, Feb 21 (IPS) – Unlike Wikileaks and other exposes, the Panama revelations were carefully managed, if not edited, quite selective, and hence targeted, at least initially. Most observers attribute this to the political agendas of its main sponsors. Nevertheless, the revelations have highlighted some problems associated with illicit financial flows, as well as tax evasion and avoidance, including the role of enabling governments, legislation, legal and accounting firms as well as shell companies.
ZAPOPAN, Mexico, Dec 27 (IPS) – Email surveillance, blocking of websites with content that is awkward for governments, or the interruption of services such as WhatsApp are symptoms of the threat to freedom of expression online, according to Latin American activists.
MELBOURNE, Nov 24 (IPS) – For Australian activist Samantha Castro, it was her association with the non-profit publishing organisation Wikileaks that brought her to the attention of the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Apr 22 (IPS) – Unlike Wikileaks’ exposes, the recent Panama revelations were quite selective, targeted, edited and carefully managed. Most observers attribute this to the political agendas of its mainly American funders. Nevertheless, the revelations have highlighted some problems associated with illicit financial flows, as well as tax evasion and avoidance, including the role of enabling governments, legislation, legal and accounting firms as well as shell companies.
JOHANNESBURG, Jun 10 (IPS) – Whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are hounded – not by autocratic but by democratic governments – for revealing the truth about grave human rights violations. Nobel peace prize winner, writer and political activist Liu Xiaobo is currently languishing in a Chinese prison while the killing of Egyptian protestor, poet and mother Shaimaa al-Sabbaghapparently by a masked policeman, in January this year continues to haunt us.
NEW YORK, May 12 (IPS) – Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan doesn’t deny that he’s had contact with terrorist groups. In fact, it would have been rather difficult to do his job otherwise.
NEW DELHI, May 12 (IPS) – “I was brutally raped thrice by my husband. He kept me under surveillance in his Dubai house while I suffered from severe malnutrition and depression. When I tried to flee from this hellhole, he confiscated my passport, deprived me of money and beat me up,” recalls Anna Marie Lopes, 28, a rape survivor who after six years of torture, finally managed to board a flight to New Delhi from the United Arab Emirates in 2012.
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 05 (IPS) – The United Nations, which is the legal guardian of scores of human rights treaties banning torture, unlawful imprisonment, degrading treatment of prisoners of war and enforced disappearances, is troubled that an increasing number of countries are justifying violations of U.N. conventions on grounds of fighting terrorism in conflict zones.
KOUOPTOMO, Cameroon, Aug 05 (IPS) – Issah Mounde Nsangou combs his 6.5-hectare Kouoptomo coffee plantation in Cameroon’s West Region, pulling up unwanted weeds and clipping off parasitic plants. For the 50-year-old farmer, the health of his coffee plants are of prime importance.
MEXICO CITY, Jun 01 (IPS) – A lack of controls, regulation and transparency marks the monitoring and surveillance of electronic communication in Mexico, one year after the revelations of cyberespionage shook the world.
TAIPEI, Mar 03 (IPS) – Taiwan’s national legislature has taken a small but important step to curb rampant government surveillance of citizens and politicians through revisions of the Communication Security and Surveillance Act and the criminal code.
WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (IPS) – In a highly anticipated speech on Friday, President Barack Obama introduced a series of reforms that will place new limits and safeguards on U.S. intelligence gathering, including additional protections for foreign nationals overseas.
WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (IPS) – As the first formal probe by an international rights body into allegations of U.S. mass surveillance began here Monday, privacy advocates from throughout the Americas accused Washington of violating international covenants and endangering civil society.
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 28 (IPS) – When the 193-member General Assembly adopts a resolution next month censuring the illegal electronic surveillance of governments and world leaders by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), the U.N.’s highest policy-making body will spare the United States from public condemnation despite its culpability in widespread wiretapping.
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 25 (IPS) – When Clare Short, Britain’s former minister for international development, revealed that British intelligence agents had spied on former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan by bugging his office just before the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the U.N. chief was furious that his discussions with world leaders had been compromised.
MEXICO CITY, Oct 03 (IPS) – Governments of countries that engage in large-scale electronic espionage, like the United States, and companies that develop spying software could theoretically face legal action for violating the Convention on Cybercrime.
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 24 (IPS) – Throwing diplomatic protocol to the winds, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff launched a blistering attack on the United States for illegally infiltrating its communications network, surreptitiously intercepting phone calls, and breaking into the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 16 (IPS) – Reported U.S. spying on Brazil’s Petrobras oil firm revived the controversy over opening up the company, a symbol of Brazilian sovereignty since the 1950s, to foreign investment.
MEXICO CITY, Sep 13 (IPS) – Non-governmental organisations are urging the United Nations Human Rights Council to demand explanations from the Mexican state for the weak protection it provided its citizens from large-scale spying by the United States.
SPOKANE, Washington, Sep 13 (IPS) – After more than two years of fighting to prevent their release, the Department of Justice has released numerous documents related to domestic spying on U.S. citizens by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the previously-secret court opinions that authorised the NSA’s controversial programmes to go forward.
BERKELEY, California, Sep 08 (IPS) – What was Mostapha Maanna of Hacking Team, an Italian surveillance company, doing on his three trips to Saudi Arabia in the last year? A new data trove from WikiLeaks reveals travel details for salesmen like Maanna who hawk electronic technology to track communications by individuals without their knowledge.
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 26 (IPS) – The U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance and telephone data collection programme has come under heavy fire for violating privacy laws, even as the U.N.’s new telephone network appears vulnerable to hackers and eavesdroppers.