Surveillance in the UK and the USA: commonalities and differences

In one of those fortuitous instances of synchronicity, there are two stories today that illustrate some of both the commonalities and the differences between state surveillance practices and regulation in the UK and the USA.

In the UK, The Guardian has revealed that the Surveillance Commissioner (a separate office to the Information Commissioner) has been very critical behind the scenes, as the Lords Committee was in public, of the uses to which the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) (RIPA) has been put, not this time by local government, but by national ministries like the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and agencies, including Ofcom (the broaadcast and communications regulator) and the Charities Commission. DEFRA came in for a particular telling-off over its spying on fishermen. The chief commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose found generalised lax practice, a lack of proper justification for and proportionality in the used of RIPA, and little training or accountability. In short, RIPA is being used because the powers exist not because there is any pressing justification to use surveillance in this manner – the used of surveillance has expanded because it is available.

It is very interesting that The Guardian had to discover all this through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and that the Surveillance Commissioner had not put all of this in the public domain as a matter of course. It highlights for me, once again, the clear difference in attitude and regulatory practice between him and the open, accountable, and active Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). It confirms my view that we would be much better off if the Surveillance Commissioner’s work was absorbed into the ICO.

In the USA, it is to lawyers that people immediately turn if some bad practice is suspected on behalf of the government. The Los Angeles Times reports that on Friday, the US government lost the case it had been bringing to try to stop an Islamic charity based in Oregon from suing them over what they claim were illegal wiretapping operations targeted at them. The case stems from the Bush administration’s attempts to bypass what were already very weak regulations governing the surveillance of American citizens which were introduced in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (1978) (FISA) and recently amended in the Protect America Act (2007). Requests are supposed to go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) which meets in secret and does not have to publish its rulings and so far as we know, has never turned down a request – so it is somewhat mystifying except as a matter of speed and convenience that the Bush administration did bypass the court.

Now the Obama administration is (shamefully) defending the actions of his predecessor. This is not entirely surprising. Intelligence is one area of continuity between governments: it is what Peter Gill called the ‘secret state’, a core that remains constant regardless of changes of administration. Nixon and Bush were both stupid enough to get caught, but the NSA, CIA and FBI are continually looking for different ways to get around domestic regulations on surveillance. Political devices like the UKUSA agreement served this purpose for many years – whereby Canadian and British intelligence services would collect SIGINT on Americans and supply it to the NSA and vice-versa. But GCHQ and others just don’t have the capabilities to carry out the amount of monitoring that now goes on. It’s been the reality for many years now that the NSA in particular does spy on Americans. Again, they have the capabilities so those capabilities are used.

Of course, unlike in the UK, we are talking about the threat of terrorism not anglers catching one-too-many fish; that really does say something about the petty bureaucracy that characterises the UK! However RIPA was also justified originally with reference to terrorism and serious and organised crime. Anyway, the ruling in the Oregon case clearly states that state secrets privilege was not enough to justify warrantless surveillance of suspects, whatever they had allegedly done. It seems that at least is one point of hope that the USA and the UK have in common. Let’s see where these situations now lead in each country…

Battle lines being drawn in UK surveillance debate

there appears to be a gathering of forces and a drawing of battle lines amongst the ‘big beasts’ of security policy in the UK…

securitystrategybannerThe UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the influential think-tank that was behind the New Labour project, has released a report on intelligence and national security that argues that privacy and human rights will have to take second place in the War on Terror. The report, National Security Strategy, Implications for the UK Intelligence Community, is written by former civil service security and intelligence coordinator, David Omand, is part of the IPPR’s Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, whose rather unimpressive launch event I attended last year.

The Guardian newspaper’s story on this is trying to build this up into an ‘end of privacy’ / ‘end of civilisation as we know it’ story and Omand certainly comes down firmly on the side of security over liberty. He recognises that his arguments are contrary to ours and go “against current calls to curb the so-called surveillance society.” But he is not actually making a total ‘by any means necessary’ argument. Even the Guardian’s own report quotes his rather qualified statement that “in some respects [new intelligence methods] may have to be at the expense of some aspects of privacy rights.”

The report is simply not as strong or even as interesting as The Guardian‘s story suggests. Most of it is simply a description of how intelligence works (and not even a very comprehensive or insightful one at that). Much, as we predicted in our recent book (see My Publications), it tries to set the creation of ‘resilience’ as a key rationale for reducing civil liberties, as if resilience in itself was a good thing that needed no justification when in fact it is being used as a bland container for all sorts of questionable policies – from the use of torture and imprisonment without trial to the everyday use of intrusive high-tech surveillance. The references to the political controversies over surveillance are rather cursory and don’t really say much other than that people are worried and really they shouldn’t be. These are just the usual ‘trust us, we know what we are doing’ and ‘these are exceptional circumstances’ arguments that we have heard many times before, and they are as weak and old-fashioned coming from Omand as from anyone else.

It is worth noting that there appears to be a gathering of forces and a drawing of battle lines amongst the ‘big beasts’ of security policy in the UK. I reported yesterday on David Blunkett’s conversion to the cause of limiting surveillance society, and a few days ago, Stella Rimington, the former Head of the Security Service, MI5, condemned the current government’s approach to liberty and security in even stronger terms, arguing that the approach that Omand typifies would lead to ‘a police state’.

Surveillance has finally become an issue on which it is becoming less possible to be unengaged, apathetic or even neutral. That in itself is a good thing, however it does not guarantee a good outcome even if more major public figures suddenly discover their enthusiasm for liberty once they leave office. However, I hope this reflects a split which is growing within the current government too – normally when retired politicians and civil servants speak out, they are conscious of the way in which they speak on behalf of friends and colleagues who feel they cannot be so candid.

Britain ‘risks a police state’

Following the damning reports of the House of Lords Constitution Committee and yesterday, the International Commission of Jurists, now Stella Rimington, ex-Head of the security service, MI5, has warned that Britain risks becoming a police state. In an internview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia reported by the Daily Telegraph, Ms Rimington attacked government plans for the National Identity Register and the soon-expected plans for a database of all communications (delayed from last year). If even ex-heads of the security service are now asking the government to change direction, in addition to civil liberties experts, independent judges, and just about everyone else, their stock of excuses must be rapidly diminishing. The current cabinet must know that their actions smack of the desperation of a failing government desperately searching for votes in being ‘tough on crime and terrorism’… but they seem to be locked into a trajectory of ever-increasing surveillance and security that they cannot justify but cannot escape. You do wonder who is actually advising them that this is all a good idea…

The loneliness of personal data

Surveillance like this harms us all: it makes our lives banal and reveals only the sadness and the pain.

Still from I Love Alaska
Still from I Love Alaska

There is something at once banal and heartbreaking about what is revealed through the examination of personal data. The episodic film, I Love Alaska, captures this beautifully. The film by Lernert Engelberts and Sander Plug is based on AOL’s accidental exposure of the search data of hundreds of thousands of its users, and focuses on just one, 711391. The film consists of an actress reading out the (unusually discursive and plain language) search terms of User 711391 like an incantation, with background sound from Alaskan locations and static camera shots that serve to emphasize her boredom, isolation and loneliness.

I was watching episode 5 of the film when two stories popped into my inbox that just happened to be related. The first was from the New York Times business section and dealt with the other side of the recent US sporting scandal over revelations that baseball player Alex Rodriguez has taken steroids. Like User 711391, Rodriguez had given up his data (in this case, a sample) in the belief that the data would be anonymous and aggregated. But it wasn’t.

So, then we come to how the state deals with this. The Toronto Globe and Mail comments on the way the Canadian federal government is, like so many others, proposing to introduce new legislation to monitor and control Internet use. The comment argues that there is no general need to store personal Internet use data (or Canada will end up like the UK…), and that Internet surveillance should be governed by judicial oversight. Quite so. But, as the NYT article points out, it isn’t just the expanding appetite of the state for data (frequently coupled in the UK with incompetence in data handling) that we should fear but the growth in numbers of, and lack of any oversight or control over, private-sector dataveillance operations.

Some people will argue that any talk of privacy here is irrelevant: User 711391 was cheating on her husband; Rodrguez was taking steroids; there are paedophiles and terrorists conspiring on the Internet. With surveillance the guilty are revealed. Surely, as Damon Knight’s classic short story, ‘I See You’, claimed, with everything exposed we are truly free from ‘sin’? But no. In its revelations, surveillance like this harms us all: it makes our lives banal and reveals only the sadness and the pain. For User 711391, her access to the Internet served at different times as her main source of entertainment, desire, friendship, and even conscience. The AOL debacle revealed all of this and demeaned her and many others in the process. Most of us deserve the comfort of our very ordinary secrets and the ability for things to be forgotten. This is the true value of privacy.

(Thanks to Chiara Fonio for letting me know about I Love Alaska)

Talk to Parliamentary Committee

I’ve been invited back to the British Parliament (yes, I know – I’m surprised they keep asking me back too!). This time it is to address a meeting of the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee on the subject of “Security Technology and Individual Freedom” in April, just after I get back from Brazil.

Is there anything anyone wants me to tell them? 😉