Britain’s Surveillance State Expands, Unnoticed

Yesterday, David Cameron told the House of Commons Select Committee on National Security Strategy that he accepted that he and his government had thus far failed to make the case for the extraordinarily invasive government surveillance practices which have been secretly going on beyond the view of the public and our elected MPs, and that he and his ministers needed to do a better job selling the benefits of an intrusive, omniscient government to the British public.

So busy protecting us, he forgot to tell us precisely what he was doing in our name.
So busy protecting us that he forgot to mention precisely what he was doing in the name of our security.

The Guardian reported at the time:

Discussing the communications legislation, Cameron said: “Over time we are going to have to modernise the legislative framework and practice when it comes to dealing with communications data. It is a politically contentious topic. I am not sure we are going to make progress on it in the coming months in terms of legislation, but there may be things short of legislation that we could do.

“I do think politicians, police chiefs, the intelligence services have got a role in explaining what this is all about. Snowden inevitably raises questions about ‘who has access to my data and why’.

“But I am absolutely convinced that proper rules for communication data collection are essential. I do not think we have got across to people yet the absolute basis of this.

“In most of the serious crimes, such as child abduction, comms data – who called who when and where was the phone at the time, not the content of the call – the comms data is absolutely vital.”

It may well be the case that the majority of the most serious crimes are indeed solved by the analysis of telephony metadata by law enforcement agencies. But David Cameron is making an entirely separate argument here. No one is proposing that the police and other law enforcement agencies should be denied access to telephone and other digital records (which are already maintained by the telecoms companies for the purposes of billing) when investigating these crimes, because in these scenarios there will almost always be a suspect in custody or at large who has created reasonable suspicion and is then the target of the search.

What GCHQ and the NSA have been doing, on the other hand, is nothing to do with this standard law enforcement practice of searching the possessions and digital footprints of an active suspect. Rather, they have been collecting reams of metadata (and more) on people who are under no suspicion of doing anything at all, in secret and without permission, to dip in and out of at their leisure. By equating these two entirely different practices, Cameron is trying to make it sound as though people who value and speak out in defence of civil liberties are somehow extremists or absolutists who want to deny basic crimefighting tools to the police. This is clearly not so.

The false equivalence is made fully apparent in this next quote from Cameron:

He continued: “I love watching crime drama on the television, as I should probably stop telling people. There is hardly a crime drama that is not solved without using the data of a mobile communications device. If we don’t modernise the practice and the law over time we will have the communications data to solve these horrible crimes on a shrinking proportion of the total use of the devices.

The Prime Minister is basically saying that because telecoms companies and devices themselves only hold the most recent usage data, it is only through exercising powers of unlimited and total surveillance that the government can maintain a complete picture of a person’s communications, for use should they ever happen to become a suspect in a crime.

Note also that we are no longer even talking about terrorism, but just “horrible crimes”, among which the Prime Minister includes child abduction and a mysterious category of offence called “comms data”. It was bad enough when a government minister could mumble something inane involving the word “terrorism” to justify gaining complete access to a person’s communications and digital life, but through a couple of seemingly-innocuous turns of phrase it seems that David Cameron now wants to broaden the use of pre-emptive digital searches to stop any and all illegal activity. And since the government has no idea who may or may not be harbouring whims of child abduction or committing a ghastly act of “comms data”, the logical inference is that he believes that the security services are perfectly entitled to collect and monitor all of our telecommunications metadata now and forevermore, on the offchance that we do decide to commit one of these crimes.

Park your outrage for a moment, because the most incredible thing of all is not that all of this has apparently been occurring with regularity – that is, collection and use of the telephony metadata of British citizens, not just for counterterrorism and national security purposes but, in Cameron’s own words, also ostensibly to prevent child abduction and any number of other nominated crimes – but that in examining the actions and conduct of his government and himself, the only thing he can find to beat himself up about is the fact that he did not do a sufficiently vigorous job selling this flagrant intrusion of government into personal privacy to the British public.

Where is the oversight? Where is the outrage?

Treading Water On NSA Surveillance, Ctd.

Evidently given prior notice of the dissatisfaction that was certain to fall on his head should he fail to announce any substantive changes to the bulk telephony data collection programme that flourished under his administration, President Obama triangulated and managed  to set out a plan that included the illusion of substantive changes. It may prove enough to fool the trusting and the credulous, but there are precious few of those sorts of people left to be fobbed off.

He listens. He gets it.
He listens. He gets it.

The New York Times gives a good overview:

President Obama, declaring that advances in technology had made it harder “to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties,” announced carefully calculated changes to surveillance policies on Friday, saying he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to telephone data, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But Mr. Obama left in place significant elements of the broad surveillance net assembled by the National Security Agency, and left the implementation of many of his changes up to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves.

The one announcement not earlier anticipated by the New York Times was the fact that the president may be slightly more amenable to the idea of telecommunications companies or as-yet unspecified third parties holding the unconstitutionally-gotten telephony metadata, rather than the NSA itself. The Times reports:

On the question of which entity will hold the storehouse of phone metadata, the president said Mr. Holder would make recommendations in 60 days. Privacy advocates have called for telecommunications providers to keep the data, though many of the companies are resisting it.

And resist they should. Due to the sensitive and highly politically charged nature of the data being held, why would a private firm wish to open itself to potential liability from lawsuits by hosting the data? Furthermore, unsavoury and unconstitutional though it may be for the government to be collating this data, it is probably more secure in the hands of the paranoid and capable people at the NSA than it would be in some corporate data centre.

But all of this is beside the point – it is not the question of where the data is hosted that upsets civil libertarians. If someone robbed banks for a living, the main concern of the public would not be where the robber is hiding the stolen cash before laundering it, it would be the fact that he is robbing banks in the first place. Similarly, the point of contention here is not whether the US government or private telecommunications companies holds vast troves of data about the telephone calls made by US and foreign citizens – it is the fact that the government seeks to monitor and check this information without a warrant to do so in the first place.

It is hard to listen to anything that Obama says on the issue of national security and privacy without remembering that he wouldn’t be saying anything at all had his clandestine spying apparatus not been revealed to the world by Edward Snowden, and that the debate that he now seeks to claim credit for starting would, if he had his way, be held only between competing interests in government, well out of the view or input of the public.

Glenn Greenwald is of the same viewpoint, seeing right through the sham:

The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are “serious questions that have been raised”. They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.

And how cosmetic these proposed “reforms” really are. Caught in the act of carrying out unconstitutional searches and intrusions into the private communications of US citizens, the president’s response is not to admit any fault, but to utter meaningless platitudes about the importance of “America’s values” while changing nothing of any substance at all:

And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. “Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress,” he gushed with an impressively straight face. “One thing I’m certain of, this debate will make us stronger,” he pronounced, while still seeking to imprison for decades the whistleblower who enabled that debate. The bottom line, he said, is this: “I believe we need a new approach.”

I have just finished reading the excellent essay by George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”. As well as helping me to realise just how pretentious and cumbersome my own writing can sometimes be on this blog (for which I can only apologise and pledge to try harder), it furnished me with this gem, this eternal truth:

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And this one:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphamism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers … Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

President Obama, justifying the intrustive actions of the NSA and seeking to cast his proposed cosmetic reforms in a favourable light, and himself as a champion of individual liberty, said this:

“In an extraordinarily difficult job — one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic — the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people,” he declared. “What sustains those who work at NSA and our other intelligence agencies through all these pressures is the knowledge that their professionalism and dedication play a central role in the defense of our nation.”

And this:

And yet, in our rush to respond to very real and novel threats, the risks of government overreach – the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security – became more pronounced. We saw, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our government engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values. As a Senator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.

Through a combination of action by the courts, increased congressional oversight, and adjustments by the previous Administration, some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I took office. But a variety of factors have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties.

The “worst excesses” to which Obama refers? Torture. Extraordinary rendition. Illegal search and invasion of privacy. But “techniques that contradicted our values” sounds so much better, so much more clinical and so much less descriptive of what happened.

This isn’t good, is it?

From The Annals of Bad Lawmaking

Sometimes they can’t help themselves. Politicians latch on to a word or a concept that is (often rightly) repugnant to almost everyone, and then, with great fanfare, roll out a new law supposedly desired to prevent said thing, or at least to impose tougher penalties on those people who do the Bad Thing.

He's had another idea.
He’s had another idea.

The Bad Thing in this case is training to be a terrorist (or undertaking “terrorism training” as the Guardian reports), the penalty for which is due to increase from a current maximum sentence of 14 years to a life sentence under the new proposals.

The Telegraph, who broke the story, note:

The maximum sentence for a range of terrorist offences, including weapons training, will be increased, under plans being drawn up by security officials.

Current laws allow such offenders to be jailed for 14 years. The new regime will allow judges to impose life terms.

Significantly, that would also mean extremists would be subject to additional monitoring when they are eventually released.

And as with most tinkerings to existing laws in Britain, this one is so riddled with generalisations, non sequiturs and loopholes that there is more daylight than content in the proposals. As we have also come to expect, we see the additional empowering of the police and security services to monitor and meddle in a person’s life for evermore, long after they have completed their punishment and served their time. Here are a few of the more obvious flaws, off the top of my head:

1. In the marginal case, how do you tell the difference between someone who has gone to another country and undertaken weapons training of some kind with no real intent to cause carnage back home in Britain or elsewhere, and one who has attended a bona fide “terrorism training camp”? The last time I checked, there was no formal accreditation of terrorist training institutions against which MI6 can cross-check, or formal evidence of graduation given to successful students. Certainly, we can all picture in our minds the images of masked men with guns and suicide vests running through obstacle courses, but the reality is probably somewhat less clear-cut. Who will be the final arbiter of these too-close-to-call decisions?

2. How will anyone accused of this crime ever receive a fair trial? If it is alleged by the prosecution that they have attended a terrorist training camp, it is highly likely that the evidence required to convict them will be of a secret nature, which if made public would jeopardise the foreign intelligence that Britain is collecting. Scenarios such as these tend to lead to secret trials without juries, where the life and liberty of the accused is decided by a solitary judge behind closed doors, with no public scrutiny.

3. Someone who has acquired skills which could – and only could – be used to harm the general population has yet to really commit any offence against British society or soil. Yes, the fact that a person has gone to a “dangerous” country and spent time in the company of other people holding “extremist” views may greatly increase the probability that they plan to turn knowledge into action (and so, perhaps, warrant greater monitoring of their actions by the security services), but until they actually make concrete plans to do so, arresting and imprisoning them for any length of time sits far too squarely in the category of punishing thought-crime for my liking.

4. It is entirely possible (as has been proven multiple times) to inflict massive damage and loss of life in a terrorist act without ever actually having left Britain to receive training elsewhere. It may seem remarkable that British laws and public policy are still being drafted in 2014 which do not account for the reality of the internet, but here we have just such a case. What is the real difference between a person downloading instructions to make and place a bomb from a source on the internet, and going to another country to receive that same tuition face-to-face? Why does the government seek to punish one more than the other? And how do we distinguish between someone who idly (or accidentally) downloads instructions for making a bomb with no malicious intent, and one who intends to put the knowledge to immediate use?

Why, indeed, does the government seek to do any of the things that these new measures will allow it to do?

Very little of it truly has to do with improving public safety. That is done (rightly or wrongly) mostly behind the scenes, in terms of adequately funding the security services and giving them sufficient remit to do their work. What this is about is not protecting the public, but rather being seen to be doing something. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, is able to look busy and important, and taking firm action at just the time when many of what the Telegraph describes as “radicals jailed after the September 11, 2001, attacks” are approaching the end of their custodial sentences.

That is not to dismiss the real problem facing the government, which the Telegraph rightly lays out:

Security sources estimate that more than 100 British nationals have fought in Syria, backing rebel groups linked to al-Qaeda.

British nationals are also said to be involved in extremist activity in countries including Somalia and Yemen.

These are thorny problems with grave implications if they are not properly met. And in some cases, changes to the laws and sentencing guidelines may well be valid. But the current package being put forward by the government, as outlined so far in the press, appears to be fundamentally unserious. Why is the focus on criminalising the acquisition of the knowledge of terrorism rather than its practice, as manifested either by helping terrorist groups in other countries or conspiring to commit terrorism at home in Britain? These offences would not only be much easier to recognise and prove in court, but also take us away from the path toward thought-crime down which legislation such as that proposed inevitably leads us.

Last-minute lawmaking on the fly. Draconian new powers that are justified using unassailably valid examples, but which could equally be applied to much less clear-cut cases. Government desperate to be seen to be taking bold, decisive action rather than calmly contemplating the best course of action.

This is becoming very familiar.

Snowden vs The Elite

Ruth Marcus from the Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald from the Guardian went head-to-head on CNN this Monday, discussing the recent New York Times editorial calling for clemency for US whistleblower Edward Snowden. As the New York Times rightly concluded in their editorial:

When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.

This was not the view of Ruth Marcus, who, showing much in common with the self-serving elitists and power fetishists who festoon Washington D.C., seems to swoon at government overreach and seeks to protect her own kind from any kind of scrutiny or consequences of their actions, whilst happily throwing the little guy or the outsider under the bus at the first opportunity:

Snowden … is seized with infuriating certitude about the righteousness of his cause. Not for Snowden any anxiety about the implications for national security of his theft of government secrets, any regrets about his violations of a duty of secrecy.

Quite how she knows that Snowden has no anxiety about these things is not entirely clear, but since she has never met Snowden I think it would be fair to surmise that she made this statement up. It would harm her cause, cheerleading for the Obama administration and the national security apparatus, if she acknowledged the fact that Snowden may have wrestled with his decision to divulge what he knew, that he had to weigh up the pros and cons of his actions.

It’s never good when experienced, professional commentators seek to drag George Orwell into their arguments, but Marcus indulges herself:

George Orwell himself would have told Snowden to chill — and the author of “Animal Farm” surely would have shown more recognition of the irony of Snowden’s sojourn in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Does a man whose life is conducted so much online really believe that Putin’s spies are not cyber-peering over his shoulder?

I believe that the irony, such as it is, is that a man from a supposedly free society has more liberty hiding out in Putin’s oppressive Russia than he would in his own native land, for doing nothing more than exposing the secret and unlawful actions of his government. That fact doesn’t make a mockery of Snowden, but it does make the United States look rather bad.

But it is on her next point that Marcus really overreaches:

On behavior, if Snowden is such a believer in the Constitution, why didn’t he stick around to test the system the Constitution created and deal with the consequences of his actions?

And here is where it gets good, because when CNN host Jake Tapper asked Glenn Greenwald to comment on Marcus’ position, he gave it to her with both barrels:


Temporarily putting aside the correctness of Greenwald’s position, the real money quote, and the thing that really gets to the rub of the matter is this:

I think Ruth Marcus’ argument exemplifies everything that’s really horrible about the D.C. media … People in Washington continuously make excuses for those in power when they break the law.

Yes, we see this time and again, and Greenwald has himself addressed this topic at length in his excellent book “With Liberty and Justice for Some”.

But in terms of refuting Marcus’ fatuous and glib suggestion that if Snowden really valued the US. Constitution he should have been willing to surrender himself and submit himself to the American legal system in order to advance his cause and win his case in the court of public opinion, Greenwald correctly states:

“If he had stayed in the United States, as Daniel Elsberg (widely considered to be a hero by most Americans) argued in the Washington Post, he would have been barred from making the very argument that she just said he should have made. Under the Espionage Act, you’re not allowed to come into court and say “I was justified in disclosing this information”, there is no whistleblower exception in the Espionage Act which is why whistleblowers don’t get justice in the United States.”

May this once and forever do away with the misleading assertion by national security fanatics and civil liberty deniers that Edward Snowden ever had – and spurned – a realistic chance of making his case to the public whilst remaining in the United States, or that his flight to Russia is in any way ironic or detracting from the validity and strength of his arguments. This is not the case.

Mediaite also provides a good summary of the exchange here.

“Patriot” Watch, Ctd. 4

It is very easy to make the cheap shot argument that right-wing / ultra-libertarian journalists such as Alex Jones from InfoWars make a quick – and often very easy – buck by playing on the fears of their listeners, and stoking the notion that the great unraveling of society is mere days or weeks from taking place, based on whatever bad piece of geopolitical news flits across the newswires on any given day.

Indeed, it is rather self evident that this is the only way that their business model works – it becomes significantly harder to sell water purification systems, survival seed vaults or home security systems to your loyal listeners if the threat to public order is only vague, and several years down the road.

The writers at do an excellent if somewhat sensationalist job of breaking down the economics of the conspiracy-theorist right wing media industry, and I can leave that to speak for itself along with my own assessment.

But as much and as often as the people at InfoWars may get things wrong, or exaggerate them out of all realistic proportion, sometimes they do get it right. As with any rigidly-held ideology, on some issues you are almost bound to be right as often as you are wrong.

And so it was with great interest that I listened to this radio interview of neo-con darling Ann Coulter on the Alex Jones radio show, in which he and his (in some cases quite knowledgeable callers) totally and systematically deconstruct Coulter’s defence of then-president George W. Bush and the war on terror:


As Coulter’s neo-conservative house of cards totally and utterly falls down on her head, she eventually resorts to exclaiming:

“This is the nuttiest conversation I have ever had! We are at war right now, this is no time to be looking for black helicopters…”

The nuttiest element, however, is almost completely on her side of the argument, as she doggedly continues to insist that the non-existent weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq.

What also makes the interview excellent is the fact that although Jones begins his interview with Coulter in a very polite and courteous manner, going to great lengths to praise her many New York Times bestselling books and many media appearances, he shows no hesitation in calling her out, mocking and even goading her when she insults his listeners and their principled defence of civil liberties.

At one point, when he realises that Coulter is utterly beholden to the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld militaristic view of the world, and will not be persuaded to come around, he goes as far as to taunt her and make fun of her lack of knowledge on the very subject on which she had just completed her newest book:

“I appreciate your ‘courage’ coming on… Ann Coulter, you are a neo-con. You are out there shilling for the trojan horse, George W. Bush is a gun-grabber… We’ve been trying to be nice to you, but you’ve just denied things that are in the mainstream news… Stay on the line Ann Coulter, if you’ve got the nerve to do it…”

Boom. Alex Jones 1 – 0 Ann Coulter.

This edition of Patriot Watch is not in any way an endorsement of Alex Jones, or his overall belief system. But at a time when almost everyone in the mainstream media, and most Democrats as well as Republicans cravenly followed and rubber-stamped every one of the Bush Administration’s capricious excesses in curtailing civil liberties in the name of “freedom” and “security”, he and his followers were pushing back and voicing their opposition.

At the same time, many people who would now mock Alex Jones were nowhere to be found.