AS we hit the pause button on the Snowden saga, it’s time to step back and look at its significance. While the revelations on the intrusive American PRISM programme, together with Tempora, its British counterpart, continue to pile up, government officials in both countries are reading from the same hymnbook.
The refrain is: “If you have nothing to hide, why does it matter if the state is accessing your communications?” They go on to argue that their vast computer networks are not actually reading your emails or listening in to your conversations. What they are doing is to vacuum up the addresses of your correspondents and telephone contacts, and the duration and destination of your communications. This so-called metadata is then stored away to be retrieved if and when something suspicious is flagged from any source regarding any of those you have been in touch with.
This is not very reassuring, considering that a 29-year old systems manager like Snowden could have access to so much information about the covert electronic signals interception programme. In fact, he said that if he knew Obama’s email address, he could have read his correspondence without a problem.
What is even more troubling is that the National Security Agency — a secretive body that has a much bigger budget than the CIA — now routinely subcontracts much of this surveillance work to contractors. In fact, Snowden worked for Booz Allen, a consulting firm, after a stint with the CIA. He is one of some 1.4 million Americans with top-security clearance. This large number of people with access to sensitive information makes the whole system prone to leaks.
Also, if so many private consultants and their employees are employed by NSA, what is to prevent one or more of them from seeking contracts and employment with foreign governments or companies? Although I’m sure these private citizens and firms sign confidentiality agreements, I doubt if this would actually stop many from spilling the beans if the price is right.
It is true that in this era of social networking, the demand for privacy seems like an archaic notion. After all, millions of those who have signed on to services like Facebook divulge vast amounts of personal information to friends and virtual strangers alike. Stuff like what people ate at a restaurant to photos of their grandchildren’s new teeth flashes across cyberspace in an unending stream.
So should we be alarmed that governments are storing all this and more on their servers? If, for instance, you are sending details about a divorce to your lawyer by email, do you want a spook to have access to this private information? It’s all very well for the state to say that only the metadata is being stored, and the contents will not be accessed unless one of your correspondents is under suspicion. But what happens if your lawyer is also engaged in anti-government human rights litigation? If his emails are then opened, your letters are automatically available as well.
All this is on the personal level. What the United States and Britain are far more furious about is the huge embarrassment the Snowden revelations have caused both governments. For some years, Washington has been accusing Beijing of hacking into government and corporate networks, and trawling through them for military and business secrets. Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Chinese are crowing about how the United States, despite all its sanctimonious posturing, has turned out to be the biggest hacker of all time.
Hence the American fury at Snowden, and official denunciation of him as a spy and a traitor. But in their self-righteous wrath, these critics forget that Snowden has made the PRISM programme public through an act of conscience. He genuinely believes that the government has no business tapping into the private communications of citizens. As a result of these sensational disclosures, a debate into the ethics and legality of the whole clandestine operation has now opened.
And while American citizens might be notionally protected, their foreign contacts are not. This is why governments in Europe and elsewhere are up in arms, and are asking tough questions that Washington has few answers for beyond saying: “Trust us. We are doing all this to keep us all safe.” To back up this claim, Washington asserts that some 50 terrorist plots have been averted because of PRISM. However, without details, it is difficult to assess this claim.
Britain, too, has had to defend itself against its European allies. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the NSA’s counterpart in the UK, has been tapping into vast amounts of cable traffic entering its shores. Just before the recent G8 summit here, Snowden revealed that in the recent past, GCHQ had been accessing phone calls and emails from delegations to earlier summits. This must have been a source of acute embarrassment to David Cameron and his colleagues when they were sitting across the table with other G8 delegates.
In the Internet’s earlier, more anarchic days, idealists thought this would be a free space for the exchange of ideas, and one out of state control. But as it has become an indispensible part of our personal and corporate lives, governments have sought to exercise a greater degree of control. Governments like Iran and China have erected filters that monitor and limit the access their citizens have to certain websites. Less sophisticated countries like Pakistan block entire websites like YouTube.
And now we learn, thanks to Snowden, that governments can see exactly which site you visit, and what you do there. When I was researching my book Fatal Faultlines, I visited many extremist websites, including Islamist and right-wing Christian ones. Perhaps these visits were logged into some NSA or GCHQ server, and will be pulled up at some point in the future. Or perhaps I’m just being paranoid.
However, you can be certain that if somebody applies for a sensitive government job in the UK or the USA, his or her whole electronic life will be an open book.