PRISM, the NSA and internet privacy: questions for the UK

serversRecent days have seen a deluge of revelations about the US’ National Security Agency and a spy programme known as Prism, after 29 year old whistleblower Edward Snowden decided he had seen enough to justify going public with his concerns the scale of the surveillance apparatus being built by America.

There are clearly several issues of serious concern here. Clearly, the legalility of what the NSA Has been doing and whether Britain has been either complicit or unwittingly accessing material illegally obtained is at the fore.

The leaked Verizon order involved the collection of details about millions of American’s phone calls under the PATRIOT Act. Yet one of the Act’s authors, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks and wrote the Patriot Act, has questioned the NSA’s interpretation of their powers. He has written to US Attorney General Eric Holder saying “I do not believe the released [secret court] order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. How could the phone records of so many innocent Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation as required by the act?”

Secondly, Prism. While the reality is probably closer to secure portals for accessing information under warrant, rather than the all-you-can-eat access suggested in early media reports, the fact GCHQ have been using the system does raise questions.

Firstly, was this information available directly through our own legal channels, which we chose not to use? If that is the case, why? Some requests are refused by the companies involved because they do not meet the necessary standards, and this system must not have been used to gain information denied in formal channels. Secondly, while GCHQ appears to only used the system sparingly – 197 reports were generated in the last year – it is not clear if British infrastructre has been used to collect information on British citizens by the NSA, which would again raise questions of legality.

Equally, if the existence of progammes is kept secret from those overseeing the work of the intelligence agencies, it is clearly impossible to say they have been scrutinised. We still do not know how Britain came to be involved in extraordinary rendition, for example.

Even Lord Carlile, the Government’s former independent reviewer of counter-terrorism, has asked for guarantees that the Patriot Act had no jurisdiction in the UK.

As the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said in a statement: “Section 702 is a provision of FISA that is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-U.S. persons located outside the United States.  It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.”

He told the Senate that the N.S.A. did not “wittingly” collect any sort of data on millions of Americans. So are British citizens being designated as foreign-intelligence at the behest of GCHQ?

Given only a few weeks ago the Obama administration accessed records about many Associated Press journalists, far beyond national security concerns, it is important that we know if British citizens have been caught up in the NSA’s operations without proper legal basis, or if GCHQ has made specific requests about British citizens to be placed under surveillance.

It should also be of concern to Governments around the world that the US seems to have no qualms hoovering up data from the rest of the world, even if doing the same to its own citizens would be illegal. At a time of international tension about how the internet is policed, several far from democratic states looking to introduce their own monitoring and global unease about cyberwarfare, it seems the US’s actions risk setting a dangerous precedent.

The Foreign Secretary has led the debate on internet freedom around the world, and he deserves much praise for this work. However, the US risks undermining this entire agenda with blanket, indiscriminate surveillance of the world’s internet use. We share the Foreign Secretary’s views, which he expressed at the Budapest Cyber Security Conference:

We believe that it is not simply enough to address economic and security threats on the internet without also taking steps to preserve the openness and freedom which is the root of its success.
We see growing evidence of some countries drawing the opposite conclusion. Some appear to be going down the path of state control of the internet: pulling the plug at times of political unrest, invading the privacy of net users, and criminalising and legislating against legitimate expression online.
A future where safe, trusted and reliable access to the internet is the norm irrespective of where you are born, in which we are able to harness the power of new technologies to close the digital divide, to spur growth and innovation, to protect cultural diversity and to increase accountability and transparency. A future where the flow of business and ideas drives down barriers to trade and increases choice for citizens. A future where human rights are respected online as well as offline.



  1. anon
    10th June 2013

    According to BBC website’s article about the Prism leak source:

    On Friday, Mr Obama defended the surveillance programmes as a “modest encroachment” on privacy, necessary to protect the US from terrorist attacks.

    ‘Modest encroachment’ on privacy is certainly not how I would describe it. Orwell’s vision of a world under surveillance only touched the surface.

    Will anything be done to stop us being spied on? Probably not. Human rights – what a laugh. We have no human rights when it comes to governments spying on us.

    • Anonymous
      10th June 2013

      Even more interesting is that 10 square mile plot of land reserved strictly for the NSA’s datacenters, you have to ask yourself why? they are actually storing all our data for years and years?

      Data collecting didn’t stop the Boston Bombers so what in god’s name do they want MORE for? They even knew about 9/11 before it happened, yet didn’t take any action.

      Do not use any US service anymore, UK is just as guilty under the echelon UKUSA secret agreement where they are doing the very thing they claim that they are not! cross-atlantic data sharing to fly under the radar of local laws

      How convenient for them.

      USA is a kleptomaniac when it comes to data, even data that happens to be crossing their country.

  2. Alastair McGowan
    10th June 2013

    Hague’s smokescreen today was blinding. We know that #RIPA has provided intelligence and police an immense resource in phone and location records alone – the inferences these data sets can produce tell analysts everything they need to know. Reading emails is not the powerful tip of these weapons, it is the network and behaviour analysis they enable which so worries me.

    If all this was strictly confined to fighting terrorism I would barely oppose it. However, think of how recently police intelligence flagrantly breached peoples’ privacy and lives merely to stop environmental activists, an activity that was considered in its time to be normal. The new normal is data surveillance.

    if #’RIPA is now being extensively abused in order to monitor movements and address the demonstrations and criminal damage some activists cause I would not be surprised at all. But they sold it to us based on its ability to fight terrorism. I do not want to see these methods slipping into everyday use, worse their use in the example of environmental activists who irritate (but pose no threat to public or state) is an example of why this is a threat to our democracy.

    if you look at the remit of the intelligence agencies, one part of their mission is the protection of the economy. Again, nothing to do with terrorism yet we have no assurances from people like Hague that these people are not invading privacy and who knows what else in pursuit of this legal yet dubious mission for state security services.

    It was never function creep it was designed. That is why Home Secretaries resist all calls to limit these activities with a proportionality principle. The truth is that terrorism is the gateway to massive data surveillance (and more critically powerful analysis methods) by the state. It threatens our democracy and the way we live. It uses the threat of terrorism to make us accept it.

    As Snowden said, this data is being archived, and in the future the state will be able to pull out all kinds of inferences about individuals private lives far out of any proportionality with terrorism and serious organised crime.

    And Snowden’s present fate may eventually be faced by many people who challenge the state, even our elected representatives, when they speak out too loudly. This is the warning.

    Nobody reasonably suggests that it is not effective against terrorism. That is the strawman. What states are pushing for is its use for everything and anything it believes suits its ends.

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  5. MR G. A. Fook
    13th June 2013

    I would imagine organised criminals have more common sense than to use their computers & phones for anything but looking at the holy bible & exchanging pleasantries. I expect any normal wannabe criminal will be using computers as a tool to bluff the authorities, pretending to be doing things they shouldn’t be to expose them and make them look as though they got the idea from barney the dinosaur. ( it is an american idea ).
    The thought of william hague, looking at you computer activities, peeking through your bedroom / toilet windows, makes my skin crawl, there we all were thinking he was sitting in his local having his daily pint of bitter when really he was out sniffing underwear on washing lines. yuck, and anyone else for that matter. gives you the heebie jeebies !.

    • Anonymous
      13th June 2013

      It isn’t just him you have to ask yourself, how long before we have anyone in the public sector i,e civil servants having access to this data.

      Also regarding the private sector, how long before data is sold to the highest bidder annually much like the UK Census does.

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