It seems that every other week we have a whistleblower to thank for making us more aware of what is being done on our behalf and apparently for our own good. The most recent revelations give us a far better idea of the sorts of wide spread, in depth monitoring and surveillance that governments feel they can subject their citizens to.
Most recently, the US government has been shamed into acknowledging the existence a programme that allows it access to data held by US companies. This programme, code-named PRISM, is an in-depth surveillance programme snooping on communications and stored information. The data available to US intelligence agencies includes email, chat, video, photos, file transfers, social networking details and more. Everything a government might want to put together a very personal picture of anyone from their activities on-line.
PRISM remains a classified programme, even now, and most of the details regarding the system and its use are still unclear. We don't know, for example, what this system has been used for, the nature of the access available or the full extent of who has access.
The data dragnet.
These kinds of mass monitoring programmes aren't unique to the US. UK intelligence services have apparently been given access to at least some reporting from PRISM, and there have been many attempts to build a surveillance dragnet in the UK for some time. In the case of the UK, these systems would be available to the police and security agencies as well as the intelligence services.
It seems that the now defunct Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP) may have at least partly became a reality when GCHQ gained access to some PRISM reporting.
The Interception Modernisation Programme was an attempt to extend the government's surveillance powers and to store communications data. We now know that just as the NSA was setting up PRISM, plans were being made here in the UK to collect data on all phone calls, emails and other online activities as a part of IMP.
But the proposals that formed IMP never made it into law. They faced resistence from civil liberties campaigners, activists and opposition MPs, ultimately they were dropped by the then Labour government. In fact the whole notion of such in depth and corrosive snooping, together with proposed ID cards and other state database proposals led to the Conservative Party to pledge to reverse the rise of the surveillance state.
After the 2010 General election, the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats formalised their opposition to excessive and intrusive surveillance in the coalition agreement. These include a commitment to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason" and a pledge to "restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness". It seems that these promises and pledges were stillborn.
Buried in the 2010 @dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_191634.pdf">Strategic Defence and Security Review, with the ink not yet dry on the coalition agreement, the Government outlined plans to introduce a programme to "@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_191634.pdf">preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communications data and to intercept communications". Of course, far from preserving capabilities, the outlined proposals pushed the boundaries on information collection.
So, even setting aside the fact that GCHQ has may have had access to PRISM reporting at least since the Coalition came to power, it seems that the Government, rather than reversing the authoritarian trend of the Labour years, decided it would redouble its efforts and revive IMP.
It duly emerged as part of the Communications Data Bill. The bill, dubbed the 'Snoopers' Charter' again had to be fought and whilst recently rejected again, it still seems that whenever there is an incident that can be twisted to support it, it reappears. Regardless of who is in Government, the Home Office wants these powers, come hell or high water, citizens be damned.
Where we go from here.
So Labour and now the Coalition are pushing for increased and unpalatable levels of monitoring in the interests of 'safety' in the face of popular opposition.
Well, enough is enough. The Government must honour their commitment to stop pressing for these powers, and actively work to roll back the ones that exist. We need answers from those responsible for allowing state surveillance to get so far out of hand and we must make it clear to those that continue to push for unwanted and excessive powers that it is unacceptable.
There has been much discussion about where the balance between security and privacy should fall, and whether it is reasonable to accept intrusions into privacy as a cost of technological advances and improvements. Some people would even say that the world is now so different, that we have to redefine what is normal and abandon privacy all together. We would disagree.
It is really quite simple. Mass domestic surveillance is always unacceptable. Any system that is designed to give blanket access to private data is unacceptable. Intelligence gathering should always be targeted and in the case of domestic surveillance, obtaining a warrant and the associated judicial oversight must be a pre-requisite.
When it comes to the intelligence services operating overseas, the rules have to be different. But agencies must operate within the law and can not be allowed to use foreign partners to do what they would not be allowed to do on their own.
These are not dire restrictions: they don't prevent the intelligence services or the police from doing their jobs, they prevent them from exceeding their mandates. These checks ensure that we apply our resources to the right tasks, to dealing with threats, rather than sifting through a mountain of data and all the false positives and false negatives that that implies. They are intended to ensure that our rights are respected and that individuals are not abused.
But if we do not turn back from the vision that all citizens are suspicious until proven innocent, PRISM, the Snoopers' Charter and the rest will undermine the very democratic freedoms they purport to uphold.
If you are concerned, you might like to contact your MP about the issue