Backlash against digital spying on citizens begins

Limits to the power of state surveillance in digital age must be enshrined in law

Edward Snowden, “the fugitive whistleblower who brought the all-seeing eye of the American government’s National Security Agency to public attention”. Photograph: AP Photo/the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras

Edward Snowden, “the fugitive whistleblower who brought the all-seeing eye of the American government’s National Security Agency to public attention”. Photograph: AP Photo/the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras

Mon, Dec 23, 2013, 01:00

The year 2013 may well be looked back on as a year when people around the world became truly aware of the extent to which digital technology, data tracking and surveillance is a part of their lives. This is, in no small part, down to Edward Snowden, the fugitive whistleblower who brought the all-seeing eye of the American government’s National Security Agency to public attention with the leaking of thousands of confidential documents.

Thanks to Snowden, we know the dragnet surveillance employed by the NSA’s Prism programme (and its counterpart in the UK, Tempora, run by the GCHQ) has allowed the agency to collect masses of data on personal phone and internet usage across the world, to intercept private emails and even to monitor the phones of world leaders like Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff and German chancellor Angela Merkel, all without any sort of warrant or even suspicion of guilt.

Ethical implications
Perhaps one of the most sinister examples of this programme in action came to light in November, when it was discovered the NSA had suggested using the online porn-watching habits of six Muslim men, none of whom was guilty of any crime, to undermine their reputations as “radicalisers”.

Further evidence of this moralistic impulse to control was found in the UK earlier this year, when David Cameron proposed a nationwide block on all websites that contain pornographic, violent, alcoholic, “extremist” or “esoteric” material. The ethical implications of a government monitoring all data accessed by personal devices, combined with the regressive moral sledgehammer of demonising all “adult” content and the non-definition of what constitutes “esoteric material”, are huge. What are the limits to such a scheme?

If 2013 was the tipping point of awareness of surveillance, then 2014 might see a more concerted effort in pushing back against it. Already we have seen the beginnings of this movement, with some potentially important events taking place last week.

First, the UN General Assembly, driven by the Brazilians and Germans, adopted a resolution aimed at protecting the right to privacy against unlawful surveillance.

In the first public judicial review of the NSA’s programme in the US, Judge Richard Leon ruled that such mass data collection is “almost certainly” in violation of the American constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful searches and seizures.

Similarly, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology advised US president Barack Obama that “the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes.”

Google fined
Closer to home, Google was fined €900,000 by the Spanish government when it was found to be in breach of data-protection laws there. Similar investigations were also undertaken in France and the Netherlands.

This political backlash against data collection is mirrored by a more cultural one. Last week, 562 authors from 81 countries, including Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Arundhati Roy and JM Coetzee, put their names to a petition which attempted to “launch an appeal in defence of civil liberties against surveillance by corporations and governments”. They state that “a person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.”

Writing in the New York Review of Books last week about Judge Leon’s ruling on the NSA, David Cole sees a similar point being made. “[Leon] reasoned there is a world of difference between what could be done with phone records in the late 1970s and what can be done today. Instead of obtaining such records for a limited time on a single person, the government now has the ability to indiscriminately collect them – along with many other forms of electronic data that did not exist in 1979 – on every
American.”

Protection
These drastic technological changes demand an effort, on both a personal and international scale, to adapt to the realities of contemporary, digital life. As the power of the state to monitor its own people increases, the limitations placed on that power must develop accordingly. We need awareness, accountability and protection. If ordinary people are to be safe and free – from the moral and ideological biases of their own government, as well as perceived external threats – then we must enshrine human rights to privacy and the presumption of innocence in laws that accurately reflect the world we live in, which is now, more than ever, both physical and virtual.

Ian Maleney is a freelance journalist