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Whistleblowers v Big State and Big Tech: we still need Davids to bring down Goliath

Big brother is watching youThere are several huge lessons that flow from this latest explosive story about the comprehensive range of the modern surveillance State. First, if we are ever going to know what is really going on behind the scenes and what government is getting up to, we are entirely dependent on the morality and courage of a handful of very brave whistleblowers, since government cannot be trusted to be transparent or honest.

Edward Snowden ranks alongside Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers about what was really happening in Vietnam, and Bradley Manning, who was responsible for the Wikileaks exposure of what was really going on in Iraq. Now from Snowden we know that the US National Security Agency (NSA) – and probably also Britain’s GCHQ at Cheltenham – can, and does, wiretap anyone anywhere. The US Prism system has been in operation for a full 7 years, but of course not a word was breathed about it by its perpetrators. First lesson, whistleblowers need to have solidly entrenched in statute a cast-iron guarantee of their protection and safety so long as what they reveal is manifestly in the public interest.

Second, the argument will continue to be used that snooping on everyone everywhere is necessary to stop jihadists’ terrorist outrages. Of course every reasonable action should be taken to pre-empt terrorism, though ordinary intelligence detection on the ground has been regularly shown to be far more effective than an internet ‘fishing expedition’. But the real point of these latest revelations is that the motive goes far, far beyond any plausible expectation that it will apprehend terrorists. It is about achieving the power of full-scale surveillance of a nation, and no doubt eventually the population of the world – a power which Snowden believes, probably rightly, wsill rapidly escalate out of control.

A third disturbing lesson from this episode is how easily the Big State (the Bush and Obama Administrations) pressurised Big Tech (the 9 or more big internet companies) into handing over vast quantities of private internet traffic which went far beyond what were believed to be the legal limits. Initially they shared data specifically required under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), but then under pressure from government they built in separate, secure portals sometimes on company servers into which, when government requested it, companies would deposit data ready for government to retrieve it, without any of the hassle or limits of FISA procedures.

Fourth, how far did GCHQ use material garnered from the US Prism system about UK individuals and then hand it on to MI5/6? We know that 197 intelligence reports were generated for GCHQ from Prism last year. But why did GCHQ use Prism at all rather than the normal legal protocol to get information from an internet company in another country? Nobody would disagree that GCHQ should access US information to monitor individuals suspected of terrorism, but the question remains unanswered whether the NSA conduit, previously unknown, has been used on a regular basis to collect information about individuals that the UK law prohibits.

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