The latest revelations about PRISM, a secret means for the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect our emails and other material without warrants, suggest that the British government cannot or will not protect its own innocent citizens from Washington’s spying.
Worse still, we law-abiding citizens are expected to trust that those secret types who spy on us – who clearly don’t trust us – are equally law abiding. Why should we assume they are? If we hold them to the paranoid standard that they hold us to, then they too must be open to account.
If they’ve nothing to hide why do the agents of the state behave so furtively? Secrecy allows them to do whatever they think they can get away with, and they do it.
PRISM is the latest outrage. But for as long as there have been telecommunications, there have been private companies working with spies to enable state monitoring.
The US National Security Agency (NSA) was originally called the Black Chamber. Under censorship laws in WWI it worked with Western Union and others to ensure access to all America’s telegram traffic. These practices, and the laws that allowed them, supposedly ended with the war, but telegram companies carried on handing over bags of telegrams to Chamber spies in back alleys.
The Black Chamber developed over the years to become inaugurated as the NSA in 1952, without the oversight of US Congress. The NSA, FBI and CIA went on to visit upon the citizens of the Land of the Free a staggering array of domestic surveillance abuses, from phone tapping to break–ins, to agent provocateurs and planting slanderous press reports about environmentalists, feminists, civil rights’ groups, democracy activists – basically anyone to the left of rabid anti-communist senator Jo McCarthy.
These abuses were only exposed by senator Frank Church’s Senatorial committee in the 1970s, which served also to inform many senators that the NSA – by then staffed by tens of thousands – even existed.
This problem is not confined to the US. In Britain, we’ve seen revelations about government agents stealing the identities of dead children to infiltrate protest groups where they encourage criminal acts while sleeping with activists. MI5 was involved in the extraordinary rendition and torture of British subjects.
And let’s not forget how the CIA and MI6 sat and watched their own intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent WMD be entirely adulterated so Bush and Blair could make their case for war.
Collaboration between international spy agencies is not new. PRISM’s an updated version of ECHELON, the global telecoms tapping and sharing network set up and run by the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the ‘UKUSA Agreement’.
So we must assume that where our own spies may not directly spy on us, they get the same data off their partners, as UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) does through PRISM.
And the US’ Patriot Act demands Google, Yahoo! and friends give up any data it gets from overseas (non-US) operations to the NSA, CIA et al.
The internet companies’ claim to ignorance of PRISM borders on disingenuous. After all, they know about the Patriot Act, and they’d be aware of how illegal eavesdropping takes place.
The US government has extended its snooping powers in a battery of recent laws, passed if not promoted, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) bill, the Cybersecurity Act and the SECURE IT Act. They all seek to enable greater state and corporate cooperation in tracking individuals’ online activities.
The Snoopers’ Charter is just more of the same for the UK, adding to the 2000 Regulation of Investigative Powers Act and the EU’s 2006 Data Retention Directive. Canada, Australia and New Zealand – all ECHELON partners – are also bidding, with strangely coincidental timing, to have their electorates’ accept in public law what’s already done on the sly.
The only problem for these powerful entities is that they have human beings with principles and consciences working for them – people like Edward Snowden, or Bradley Manning – brave individuals who stand up to the abuses of power that they see and expose them, instantly, globally, with a memory stick, the Internet and perhaps a media partner. It’s that easy to expose the malevolence of governments to the scrutiny – and wrath – of their electorates. And that is how the balance of power should be.
This article first appeared in the New Internationalist.