Global surveillance and shifting political stances

3 Jun 2015

As the US retreats back from its frontline metadata retrieval position, questions on why Safe Harbour still exists remain. But Britain is more interested in burying its ‘international cyber treaty’ proposal.

An international treaty might well be our best compromise, balancing personal privacy with state thirst for all the information in the world. However, why the British government feels the need to hide its suggestion can only be worrying.

As reported in The Guardian, a top secret report from former British Ambassador to Washington Nigel Sheinwald to the British prime minister recommended the treaty, which could offer a legitimate process to circumvent American laws blocking the transfer of data from the big US internet companies into the UK.

“It would also mean not having to revive the powers, which require British phone companies to share data from the US giants passing over their networks, from the 2012 communications data bill that would enforce their compliance,” reads the report.

Why so quiet?

However, keeping this recommendation secret could mean that no real debate goes into it, offering a dangerous avenue for yet more smoke and mirrors.

“The Sheinwald report should be published. Any attempt to hide it can only be interpreted as an attempt to close down debate about whether the snooper’s charter is really needed,” said Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group in The Guardian.

“A new international treaty is the right approach to cross-border requests for data by law enforcement agencies. This approach undermines Theresa May’s claim that there is a need for a new snooper’s charter when there is a simple, transparent and workable solution.”

Winds of change

This comes at a time of great uncertainty for the ability of the surveillance arms of both the US (NSA) and the UK (GCHQ) to maintain their wide-reaching indiscriminate trawl of data from citizens both domestic and foreign.

Only yesterday, certain major powers of surveillance granted to the NSA were curbed after the US senate voted in favour of the US Freedom Act, which will curtail its abilities.

The practice of gathering US citizens’ data regardless of whether they are criminal suspects or not is to end, although it’s rare that what we see on the surface is all that exists.

In Ireland, the contentious application of Safe Harbour, a weird agreement between the EU and US now well into its second decade, continues to strip European citizens of their privacy, while empowering the machine that is US surveillance.

Drawn up between the EU and the US in 2000 to allow the interchange of data despite differences in data protection laws, it has seen largely one-way traffic, highlighted – like all of this – by Edward Snowden’s leaking of countless documents listing the NSA’s and GCHQ’s spy tools.

Surveillance, the slow burner

Snowden’s work illustrated how Safe Harbour did nothing to engender the safety of European data travelling across the Atlantic, if anything endangering those affected – which is pretty much everyone.

So back in 2013 the EU sought to fix that, and we’re still waiting. The European Commission sent a list of 13 recommendations to American negotiators back then, but last week the EU Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová said two last points were still holding up an agreement.

“If there were only 11 points, we could finalise negotiations. There are two more, however, which concern exceptions under which national intelligence services can use data,” Jourová said at a panel discussion in Brussels. “There, we’re still negotiating because we haven’t received satisfactory responses from the American side.”

So we have the UK, burying a report that could initiate some actual discussion on this, the EU still taking part in an agreement stripping its citizens of some of their liberties, all while bodies and employees of the likes of the GCHQ benefit from secret bills to ensure they aren’t in trouble for their crimes. Oh and companies should tell governments everything, because terrorism.


Spy image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic