If you are suffering from ‘shock fatigue‘ (and who isn’t?) over the never-ending revelations on the extent and degree of NSA surveillance on all of us, then I can do no better than recommend you view NSA Files: Decoded – What the revelations mean for you. It is a single document that provides an overview of what we’ve learnt so far, and is interspersed throughout with brief videos on viewpoints from both sides of the fence.
If you are American, then you should be proud of the public debate that these revelations have prompted. If you are British, you should be worried about the lack of any public debate at all.
Britain’s spy agency GCHQ has secretly gained access to the network of cables which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic and has started to process vast streams of sensitive personal information which it is sharing with its American partner, the National Security Agency (NSA)…
“It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight,” Snowden told the Guardian. “They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”
Guardian, Friday 21 June 2013
But where is the public debate in the UK? It doesn’t exist.
To understand why, you have to consider the nature of the two countries. America was founded on a distrust of government (ironically, specifically the British government). Protection against government authority is built into the American Constitution. And to this day, Americans instinctively distrust big government.
Britain is different. Its democracy has grown slowly and peacefully over a thousand years. Brits instinctively believe that their government is good; Brits instinctively trust big government.
The result of Snowden’s revelations is that both governments are trying to justify their surveillance practices; but while the American government is on the defensive, the British government is decidedly offensive.
Meanwhile, in Britain, prime minister David Cameron accused the Guardian of damaging national security by publishing the revelations, warning that if it did not “demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act”.
NSA Files: Decoded
Meanwhile, in Britain, government agents forced the physical destruction of the Guardian disks containing Snowden files:
The intelligence men stood over Johnson and Blishen [Guardian staff] as they went to work on the hard drives and memory chips with angle grinders and drills, pointing out the critical points on circuit boards to attack. They took pictures as the debris was swept up but took nothing away.
NSA files: why the Guardian in London destroyed hard drives of leaked files
Meanwhile, in Britain, Glen Greenwald’s boyfriend David Miranda was detained at Heathrow for 9 hours and had his computer equipment confiscated because he was suspected of being a terrorist:
At the time I said that all the police had to do was justify the suspicion that Miranda was a terrorist as defined in the Terrorism Act; which would be easy.
Britain: the Miranda detention proves it is a police state in action
Meanwhile, in Britain, an emergency debate in Parliament did not discuss GCHQ overreach, but instead discussed the Guardian’s support for terrorists:
This debate, however, focuses on a narrower and darker issue: the responsibility of the editors of The Guardian for stepping beyond any reasonable definition of journalism into copying, trafficking and distributing files on British intelligence and GCHQ. That information not only endangers our national security but may identify personnel currently working in our intelligence services, risking their lives and those of their families.
Parliamentary debate: National Security (The Guardian)
Incidentally, Paul Flynn (a Labour MP) attempted a ‘point of order’:
On a point of order, Mr Caton. You are the guardian of the reputation of this debate, and so far it has demeaned Parliament’s reputation, because we have had two speeches that were written and read with no attempt to engage us in debate. This is McCarthyite scaremongering that disgraces Parliament.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the government’s pet poodle paper (The Daily Mail, if you hadn’t guessed) attacked the Guardian:
Stupendous arrogance: By risking lives, I say again, the Guardian is floundering far out of its depth in realms where no newspaper should venture…
Stephen Glover, 9 October 2013
Put quite simply, the British government has very successfully managed to turn attention away from its surveillance programmes and against, instead, the newspaper that exposed it. The message is irrelevant, it suggests — it is the messenger that should be shot.
It is time, I suggest, for the British people to understand that its government cares not a jot for the British people, nor for democracy, nor freedom, nor liberty. It cares more for secrecy; and demands to be left alone to carry on unchecked. It is time for Brits to learn to distrust their government.
That’s rubbish. Google said what it said – it’s there in black and white and they all quote it. It was said by lawyers, so of course they meant what they said. And how do you take a motion to dismiss a class action out of context?
The question is not what Google said, but why it said it. OK, here’s my layman’s take.
This is big. It’s not a court case that Google can afford to lose. If it did, it could potentially jeopardise the entire business model for Gmail. And without Gmail, where is Drive?
Google almost certainly will not lose this case. But the ‘what if…’ doesn’t bare contemplating. Google has to be absolutely certain of winning. And that’s where the invocation of the ‘third-party doctrine’ comes in. It’s the nuclear option defence.
Now the three Google apologists all say, wait a minute, Google is only talking about non-Gmail plaintiffs. So? It still cites the third-party doctrine – and show me where in the Smith v. Maryland ruling it says, “this ruling only applies to non-Gmail email users.”
But Google is being more clever than this. By invoking Smith v Maryland, Google is saying to the government, if you take me down, I’m taking you down as well. The government relies too much on this doctrine in its own surveillance practices to allow it to be overturned in a case against Google. So this statement by Google is a form of insurance to make sure it doesn’t lose the case.
What Google is saying very clearly is that users do not have a legal expectation of privacy and that it has the legal right to be a right bastard. The only bit where The Next Web, The Verge and TechDirt have got it right is that Google is not saying it is or will become a right bastard – only that legally it can.
Usually I like The Next Web. But this is a bit strange. It says that news reports give the wrong weight to something Google lawyers argue in a motion to dismiss a class action. TNW’s headline is, No, Google did not say that there is no privacy in Gmail.
Excuse me? That is, conceptually, exactly what Google said — and TNW proves it by reproducing the content:
Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS provider in the course of delivery. Indeed, “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 743-44 (1979).
TNW misses off the legal reference, but then helpfully explains it. TNW then adds:
The same is true of email sent through an ECS provider…
So, TNW, I’m afraid you’ve got it wrong — that’s exactly what Google said, and exactly what Google meant.