Thursday, October 03, 2013

Why Britons (and Canadians) should worry about their SIGINT agency

British journalist John Lanchester, who was given access to the full, unredacted material leaked by Edward Snowden, reports on the conclusions he drew from it, and makes what is in my view a very balanced, rational, and compelling case for why the public should be concerned about the growing power of GCHQ and the security state in general ("The Snowden files: why the British public should be worried about GCHQ," Guardian, 3 October 2013):
Most of what GCHQ does is exactly the kind of thing we all want it to do. It takes an interest in places such as the Horn of Africa, Iran, and North Korea; it takes an interest in energy security, nuclear proliferation, and in state-sponsored computer hacking.

There doesn't seem to be much in the documents about serious crime, for which GCHQ has a surveillance mandate, but it seems that much of this activity is covered by warrants that belong to other branches of the security apparatus. Most of this surveillance is individually targeted: it concerns specific individuals and specific acts (or intentions to act), and as such, it is not the threat.

...

The problems with GCHQ are to be found in the margins of the material – though they are at the centre of the revelations that have been extracted from the Snowden disclosures, and with good reason. The problem and the risk comes in the area of mass capture of data, or strategic surveillance. This is the kind of intelligence gathering that sucks in data from everyone, everywhere: from phones, internet use from email to website visits, social networking, instant messaging and video calls, and even areas such as video gaming; in short, everything digital.

...

What this adds up to is a new thing in human history: with a couple of clicks of a mouse, an agent of the state can target your home phone, or your mobile, or your email, or your passport number, or any of your credit card numbers, or your address, or any of your log-ins to a web service.

Using that "selector", the state can get access to all the content of your communications, via any of those channels; can gather information about anyone you communicate with, can get a full picture of all your internet use, can track your location online and offline. It can, in essence, know everything about you, including – thanks to the ability to look at your internet searches – what's on your mind.

...

All through the GCHQ material there is a tremendous emphasis on the legal basis of its operations, particularly in respect of article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which grants: "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence."

It is repeatedly stated that "GCHQ operates within the law" and that "GCHQ does it legally" and that surveillance always has to be "justified, necessary and proportionate". Good – it would be terrifying if that weren't the case. But if GCHQ seldom breaks the law, it's because the law is so broadly drafted and interpreted it's almost impossible to break.

Also, in the GCHQ papers there are occasional glimpses of a different attitude, usually to be found in slides which are marked as "hidden" in PowerPoint presentations, or in the presenters' notes to other slides. (Many of the clearest documents are internal GCHQ briefings laid out in the form of PowerPoint talks. I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's great joke, in response to whether he needed audio-visual aids for a lecture: "All power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.")

For instance, a legal briefing on the Human Rights Act lists the instances in which it is legal for the state to breach article 8: "In the interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

The notes make the point that national security, public safety and serious crime are the three current reasons for which GCHQ is allowed to eavesdrop, but there is a chilling addition: "'Just' 3 at the moment. No reason why GCHQ's remit would not be changed in the future but this is what we are allowed to do at the moment."

It's usually only in books that people's blood runs cold, but mine did when I read that. "Just" three at the moment: in other words, there are "just" three reasons why GCHQ can violate article 8, the right to privacy. But that could change. It would be legal in human rights terms for GCHQ's mandate to cover "the prevention of disorder", not to mention "the protection of health or morals".

Extending state power

The totalitarian state in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four would need no broader legal justification than that: it really does allow a government to do anything it likes. It was at this point that I became convinced that Snowden's revelations are not just interesting or important but vital, because the state is about to get powers that no state has ever had, and we need to have a public debate about those powers and what their limits are to be.
Read the whole article -- it's worth your time.

Although written specifically about Britain and GCHQ, Lanchester's comments apply mutatis mutandis to Canadians and CSE as well.

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