#dontspyonus at #lab14

Off to the International Anthony Burgess Museum for the Don’t Spy on Us fringe meeting on Privacy. The speakers were Ewan Macaskill of the Guardian, Carley Nyst of Privacy International, Claude Moraes MEP, Jim Killock of the ORG and chaired by Mike Harris of #dontspyonus. The first speaker was Ewan Macaskill who started by saying he’s glad they i.e. the spooks are there, but like me in fact, supposed that they were targeting maybe 5-15% of the population which would be say 400,000 people. What is shocking is the ambition, to spy on everyone who uses the internet. The fact they’re aiming at everyone, including lawyers and doctors is worrying to say the least.

As a journalist, he is also concerned about his rights to protect his sources, which while important, probably less so than the rights of the accused and their lawyers to maintain their privacy. Macaskill also raised the issue that he is trying to find out how much the spies have been paying the naughty nine and the UK telcos to perform work on behalf of the spies. I am more interested as to the activities performed as far as we know by the NSA in influencing hardware vendors in terms of adopting weaker encryption and/or inserting back doors into the network hardware we use to protect our digital communications. I am particularly interested if the US have suborned any European companies in this way.

He was also the first to say, something which was repeated over the night, that without Snowden’s leaks we wouldn’t know. Parliament didn’t know, it’s intelligence committee didn’t know, and the Intelligence Commissioners didn’t know. There has been no effective political oversight, although the persistence with which the intelligence community kept asking for an extension of powers might have been considered a clue by some. Macaskill stated that the spies are lying to what limited oversight there is, certainly in the States where senior officials have apologised to Congress for their misleading answers. It should be remembered that the famous quote, “economical with the actualité”  also arose when Whitehall was trying to keep their skulduggery under wraps. If we want to go even further back in history, we come to Tam Dalyall’s pursuit of Thatcher and the location and route of the Argentine Cruiser, the General Belgrano. Minster’s lied to Parliament, they were grassed up a civil servant, Clive Ponting who was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, but let off by the jury after the Judge had directed a guilty verdict. Difficult things juries! One post trial event was the sight of the oh-so clever Enoch Powell arguing that civil servants must keep Minister’s parliamentary lies a secret. We have come on a bit since 1984, but in some ways not enough. Macaskill finished his set by stating that Snowden wanted to return to the USA, but only if he were to face a jury trial. At the moment the US are proposing to deny him one by charging him with espionage related charges.

Claude Moraes is one of Labour’s MEPs for London and Chairman of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE). He was also the rapporteur for the European Parliaments response to the Snowden leak inspired enquiry into State surveillance. I wrote about it here. It’s taken much more seriously in Eastern Europe than in the UK. He spoke next and made four concise points,

  1. Without Snowden we wouldn’t know
  2. Security and mass surveillance are different things
  3. Privacy is a now a European competency
  4. We need a Digital Bill of Rights,

He finished with the statement that “DRIP is disproportionate”; which is of course one of the reasons the status quo ante been ruled as illegal.

Carley Nyst, Privacy International’s Legal Director spoke next. She spoke of the paranoia surrounding the State and society after the Al-Qaeda attacks on London on the 7th July and that this was part of what justified RIPA. While stories of egregious over use have been leaking into the public domain over years, this has dramatically focused on local government bodies trying to enforce their education allocation policies. The fast is we would not have known the extent of the surveillance until Snowden told us.

She mentioned that three of the platform speakers represented organisations that were, or were personally taking the government to court over the legality of GCHQ’s mass surveillance. She said she expected the PI case to lose, but they would then join ORG in Strasbourg. The reason that PI were in the UK is that for cases before the IPT, you don’t have to prove standing i.e. you don’t have to prove you’ve been spied on, however, since the ORG have got the European Court of Human Rights to fast track consideration of their case because the IPT is not considered an independent court, I wonder what they’re doing there.

She also stated that there is no sense of embarrassment within the British Government as shown by DRIP, but when the UN reaffirmed that mass surveillance is illegal, while the US having voted against the resolution fessed up, the British Government has basically ignored it without shame, which is pretty much what they did when the EUCJ ruled the Data Retention Laws illegal.

Killock, the Executive Director of the Open Rights Group stated that the court cases prove that politics has failed. He also looked at the EUCJ ruling and listed ways in which mass surveillance breaks their definition of proportionate.

Tom Watson MP started with a disclaimer, noting his surprise that he has ended up as a privacy & digital rights campaigner; he got into politics to fight poverty. He also stated that despite having been a defence minister & a cabinet office minster, he didn’t know that GCHQ was working with the NSA and spying on the whole of the internet, thus reinforcing the argument made by the previous speakers that without Snowden, we wouldn’t have known. Tom’s most recent parliamentary foray on surveillance and digital rights was in leading the parliamentary opposition to DRIP. He expressed with some anger the deliberate failure to consult and stated that he’d have thought that Clegg & Cameron had learned from the No2ID campaign; they abolished/dropped the Law on becoming the government. He alleged that they were planning to announce the bill the day they tabled it, but it was leaked. This meant that the opposition had a week to campaign which was obviously not enough, but he argued that the Labour front bench should not have agreed it. (He didn’t mention the concessions made by the government to keep Labour on side, which would not have been won without him and those who supported him.)

Tom has been arguing for a couple of years that there is a loss of trust between the electorate and  politicians and that it’s the critical issue. He argued that while the expenses crisis was a fulcrum that made concrete the massive loss of trust, the cynical manipulation of party structures (in the case of Labour), the abandonment by the LibDem of key promises such as tuition fees, all give credibility to the accusation that all politicians lie. The hollowing out of the manifesto process by all three parties makes choosing who to vote for on policy and vision issues hard for people. The turnout and registration in the Scottish independence referendum shows that when it counts, and when they can make a difference, people want their say. The LibDems proposal that they can occupy the centre of the political spectrum, and act as kingmakers is another denial of democracy since only a minority of voters are supporting them. Their failure to engage with their voters as they negotiated the coalition agreement, shown by the number of members and voters they’ve lost does damage to democracy as well as their own prospects. This cynical disregard of what one says, and being held to account is illustrated by the Tories with their, “No top down reorganisation of the NHS”, and Cameron’s U-Turn over green and environmental policy, i.e. his “Get rid of all this green crap” policy revision are further indicators of the contempt in which electors are held, a feeling reciprocated by many voters. (This is a dangerous stuff for democrats.)

One of the corollaries of the lack of trust in political parties is the commitment to single issue politics. We were reminded that single issue politics was once simpler, in the 1970’s single issue pressure groups got political transmission through membership of political parties, mainly the Labour Party, whose federal structures and internal democracy made it easier to win broad support and manifesto commitments. Today the pressure groups are lobbying the political parties, and in some cases standing apart in order to attract support and commitment. Watson argues that this must end. Now is not the time to give up on party politics because the thing about politics is,

you can’t be a consumer, you have to be a participant

It would have been a good place to end, but he then spoke about Meta Data. The thing about meta data is that it has substance, people can lie and thus content may be untrue. There’s plenty of claims within the US military and digital liberty campaigners that meta data is the person and as Watson reminds us, the US use meta data to select targets for lethal action.

There was a good Q&A session incluing a contribution from Julie Ward, Labour’s newest MEP in the North West.

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