Anger over Prism programme

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 01:00

In welcoming what he called the opening of an “appropriate discussion” on the balance between civil rights and legitimate state security activity, President Obama was only making a virtue out of necessity. The cat – the Prism programme – was well and truly out of the bag, and he might as well embrace a debate that will happen anyway, with or without his sanction.

Not that Mr Obama is in the interim going to pursue any less vigorously the extradition from Hong Kong of whistleblower Edward Snowden who has brought Prism to our attention. Or the zealous hunt for other whisleblowers which his administration seems particularly taken with – the trial of Wilkileaks source Bradley Manning has begun, while his Justice Department’s enthusiastic pursuit of whistleblowers had led it to bugging the Associated Press. Or, indeed, will he curb the secretive National Security Agency’s worldwide data-trawling of phone metadata and access through Prism to foreign emails whose value his Administration has this week been busily defending.

For one thing, it appears that, the civil rights lobbies’ protestations notwithstanding, the US public might not mind very much – partly because it remains still transfixed by 9/11 and its aftermath, and partly, no doubt, because he was able to reassure them that the email intrusion only applied abroad and that the NSA was not actually listening in to calls without the extra judicial sanction required. “No-one is listening to your telephone calls,” he told America.

But internationally the affair has done the US and Mr Obama no favours. And he the champion of Chinese internet freedom! His Attorney General Eric Holder faced sharp questions at the Brussels EU-US meeting yesterday. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel promises to beard Obama on the issue, probably at the G8, not at all happy that EU citizens have less protection from intrusion than the US’s own.

In the Commons Foreign Secretary William Hague has been forced to issue not-altogether-convincing reassurances that the British spy agencies have only used Prism information “within the law”. Italy’s data protection commissioner has described the US actions as “very serious violations” of its law.

Lax US attitudes to privacy and data protection will certainly affect forthcoming EU-US trade talks and must undermine political support for the close intelligence co-operation between the US and allies. More than 90 per cent of Internet users are non-US, and most of them hold accounts with Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, all of them, mined by the NSA – and as one commentator has put it “it is hard to imagine another country creating a Google or an Amazon, but if non-US companies want to challenge the titans, data privacy is now the weapon of choice.” Prism may be a boon to US securocrats, but the US may pay a significant political and economic price.