It’s been a year now since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the massive US and UK spying operations sent much of the world into a tailspin. The US has taken some modest steps toward reform. But the initial steps taken across the Atlantic only serve to highlight the deafening silence and lack of public debate here in the UK.
Since stories based on the Snowden documents began to appear, the official line has essentially been the same: the government doesn’t comment “on the detail of intelligence operations” and law-abiding citizens should rest assured that the British intelligence agency is only spying on the bad guys.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has defended the intelligence agencies, saying they acted lawfully to protect our safety. Spy chiefs have claimed that terrorists are “rubbing their hands with glee” at the leaked information that they claim put their operations at risk, though they have published no evidence of this.
Yet the issue is of no less importance here than it is in the US. Articles published by the Guardian and other media raise very serious concerns that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is and has been spying on millions of people in and outside the UK, collecting information on pretty much every aspect of ordinary people’s lives—personal, professional, medical— without any legitimate justification.
We have heard Snowden say that GCHQ and the NSA in the US have spied on human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. We’ve also seen media reports, based on Snowden’s documents, alleging that Britain’s spy agency has accessed data travelling from North America to and through the UK on a mass scale, and shared this data with the US.
To understand why there needs to be a debate about the UK policies and practices, consider how out of step the law governing surveillance in the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, is with advancements in technology and digital communications. Think of how much the way we communicate has changed over the past 14 years.
This law allows British intelligence agencies and the police, authorized by a senior government minister, to intercept communications on very broad grounds such as national security, preventing serious crime and even “safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.” It allows a senior government minister to issue interception warrants for communications sent or received outside the UK without even specifying a named person or premises. That could affect millions of people here and around the world. No judge is involved in this process.
The UK government, instead of being willing to discuss or review its operation, forced the Guardian to destroy hard drives containing the data, even after being told that the data was replicated elsewhere outside the UK. Last August, David Miranda, the partner of the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was held for nine hours at Heathrow airport, his laptop, mobile phone, DVDs and camera confiscated. His treatment sent a clear warning to journalists reporting on surveillance in the UK. It also drew criticism from the UN experts on freedom of expression and counter-terrorism.
The debate in the US Congress still has not gone far enough, focusing mostly on the privacy rights of Americans. But at least there has been some serious discussion of surveillance practices. The British Parliament on the other hand has been largely docile on the issue. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), the parliamentary group in charge of overseeing the intelligence agencies, is conducting an inquiry into whether the law sufficiently protects the right to privacy, but this is hardly promising. The ISC has in the past failed to hold the intelligence agencies to account on their involvement in overseas torture and, despite some reforms, continues to lack the independence and transparency necessary for such an important task.
The UK’s unwillingness to answer even basic questions about its surveillance programmes risks not only damaging people’s trust that the government will respect their right to privacy and freedom of expression. It also damages the government’s credibility to speak about these issues internationally. The UK has a leading role in the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), a group of 23 governments formed in 2011 to advance freedom of expression and online privacy worldwide. But why would any government listen to the UK when, faced with serious and numerous reports it has breached these rights on a mass scale, it responds with stony-faced silence?
We all want to be safe from terrorist threats. But we should not have to choose between our safety and our privacy. Ensuring the intelligence agencies can do their job and protecting the privacy of our communications are not mutually exclusive, and as more and more of our lives now play out online, it’s crucial that the British government act now.
The first step should be, simply, a conversation. An informed debate in public and in Parliament about what GCHQ has really been doing with our communications and what needs to change. A year is a long time to wait, but it’s better late than never.
Izza Leghtas is Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.