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…