AMITIAE - Friday 6 February 2015
Cassandra: Security Agencies Destroying Society Instead of Protecting (Updated)
By Graham K. Rogers
Some years back, the Labour government attempted to bring in what was called the Snooper's Charter: called such for good reason. The Tories were adamantly opposed to this, along with the Liberal Democrats. Once in power, the Conservatives changed their collective mind: perhaps the bureaucrats - and particularly GCHQ - are more influential than we would like to think. The Snooper's Charter allows the government authorities access to retained data without a warrant: fishing. Fortunately some are wary of this; but not all.
It was defeated, particularly as the coalition Lib-Dems wanted no part of it: a pragmatic investment for the future. Over and over, however, Teresa May brings this legislation back to the table as if no one is going to notice the stale cakes that are being served again.
The NSA revelations from Edward Snowden drove those concerned about privacy and freedoms further away from the governments' ostensibly reasonable arguments: after all, it is their job to protect; but at what cost? To some Snowden is a whistle-blowing hero, to others a traitor; but we do know more of the methods used in our name to gather information.
Those charged with the processes of collecting information to thwart the criminals push against the limits, understandably. They never accept that taking things to extremes destroys the very thing they are trying to protect (reminding one of the famous quote from the Vietnam era - We had to destroy Ben Tre to protect it). Lines must be drawn on both sides.
It was clear that the government argument that was current then, that there was no need for the public to be concerned as it was only metadata that was being collected, did not hold water, especially as they wanted this retained for periods measured in years, not days or months. Britain and Australia are also concerned about access to, and retention of, metadata.
Proving himself to be more of a liability, Hayden doubled up on that recently with some comments concerning who surveillance was being conducted against. The authorities insisted that this was only those abroad who were suspected of being terrorists (perhaps) and those whom they called in the United States; but anyone that those secondary persons called might also be drawn in, like the six degrees of separation that links us all.
This week, there is a video of him at a conference where he tells people he believes that 9/11 gave him the right to re-interpret the Constitution, something that has been a common theme in some quarters in recent years. He added "let me be really clear. NSA doesn't just listen to bad people. NSA listens to interesting people. People who are communicating information."
All people communicate information, even if it is the price of eggs. What Hayden admitted to in that video is what the NSA denied it was doing, and is legally forbidden to do in the United States. This however, omits those outside the USA, for whom there is no protection whatsoever from those agencies within the United States who claim the need to protect US citizens.
Needless to say, there were howls of protest from the FBI among others, with claims that the terrorists, international criminal gangs and/or child pornographers would be able to communicate and the government would not be able to find out what the messages contained. The calls for changes in legislation were reaching new heights when the Paris murders and kidnappings took place.
Undeterred, the Tories tried again to slip in the Snooper's Charter via the House of Lords: Britain's upper house. The attempt was defeated; but without blinking an eye, a week later, they tried again to bring in the same legislation that has been stopped again and again.
In one revealing comment, Lord King (a former defence secretary) said, "I am not a tweeter, but we've got Facebook, we've got Twitter and somebody tried to explain to me what WhatsApp is, somebody else tried to explain to me about Snapchat. My Lords, I don't know about them, but what is absolutely clear is that the terrorists and jihadists do".
What is clear from that, is that those who are empowered to legislate do not have a clue about what they are talking about. King was supported by Lord Paddick, a former Metropolitan police and two other peers (Alan Travis, Guardian).
Also in Britain, despite being ordered to destroy DNA, photographs and fingerprints of people found innocent of offences for which they were charged, this apparently not been done. However, those opposed to excessive spying on individuals have an ally in Sir Anthony May, the interception of communications commissioner, who criticised police for using anti-terror legislation to obtain the phone records of journalists (Joshua Rozenberg and Josh Halliday, Guardian).
This was just days after Prime Minister Abbott fared badly at the polls and just before he was expected to be removed from head of the party (and also PM). It was almost as if sensing a moment about to pass, the law was put in front of Parliament in a last ditch attempt to push it through, despite the strong arguments put forward by those such as Dr Keiran Hardy and Professor George Williams of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, University of New South Wales.
Libertarians and hawks will disagree about what intelligence agencies should be licensed to do, but both should surely agree that they shouldn't break the law. A court ruled . . . however, that, in its dealings with the NSA, GCHQ had done that.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.
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