UK Surveillance Bill: giving up privacy for security but with no guarantee of security

Freedoms cannot be given up for the nebulous cause of 'security'.

Freedoms cannot be given up for the nebulous cause of ‘security’

By now, people are aware of at least some the spying being conducted by the NSA and the GCHQ. The two programs working together form the largest data collection project in human history.

Edward Snowden’s leaks have elucidated at least the mechanisms behind the data collection: metadata collection by the GCHQ and the NSA has been sponging up information from across the internet as phone call metadata is simultaneously monitored.

Despite the starling revelations, there has been little action by the British government to reduce infringements on the rights of British people. In fact, they have gone the opposite way.

While addressing Parliament recently, David Cameron outlined two pressing reasons the government needed more surveillance: Iraq and Syria. He claimed there would need to be the ability to store metadata in order to have an effective intelligence program. Eventually, Labour and Conservatives agreed to the emergency legislation and passed it. The argument is that with increased surveillance there will be greater security for the United Kingdom, which is worth a loss of privacy.

The problem is that this argument presents a false dichotomy: privacy or security. The reality is far different from the talking points, though. What is rarely discussed is that the massive surveillance programs actually have a very questionable ability to achieve their main goal of stopping terrorism and keeping the United States and the United Kingdom safe.

In August of 2013, the Washington Post leaked that there were key deficiencies in the GCHQ’s and NSA’s programs. For example, they have failed to procure any worthwhile intelligence about China’s airforce capabilities, Hezbollah’s operations or Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

In addition, the benefits the organizations have in stopping terrorism are cloudy at best and nonexistent at worst. The former head of the NSA, Keith Alexander, originally testified to congress that 54 terrorist incidents had been stopped by the NSA. Later, the NSA continually waffled over the issue of whether these were all attacks, or rather “terrorist related activities” including “material support”.

They also conceded that a small number of the incidents were stopped by their expanded post-9/11 powers.

When repeatedly pressed to give firm examples of cases the NSA had stopped with its expanded powers, they were able to hold up four examples.

One was an American man who gave $8,500 (£5,000) to Al Shabab.

The next man captured was a plotter in the Mumbai terror attacks who was planning an attack against a Danish publication. It would be mission accomplished for the NSA if it weren’t for the fact that traditional intelligence, MI5, initially tipped off the NSA about the threat.

Third, a would-be New York subway bomber was stopped by the NSA’s new email spying powers. However, even in a pre-9/11 world the FBI was able to access terrorists’ email if there was reasonable cause to believe they were terrorists (and this man certainly was already well known by the American government as a terrorist).

Fourth and finally, a quixotic group of three men had a nascent and bungled plan to blow up the New York Stock Exchange.

The people of the US and the UK must decide if their privacy and a creeping surveillance state are worth the benefits provided: at least to our knowledge, £5,000 going to a group concerned with fighting on the Horn of Africa. Our leaders owe it to us to prove that their programs are working. Freedoms cannot be given up for the nebulous cause of ‘security’. There has to be a very clear and real rationale given for the increasing surveillance powers.

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3 Responses to “UK Surveillance Bill: giving up privacy for security but with no guarantee of security”

  1. Leon Wolfeson

    But GCHQ can already gather pretty much what it likes. DRIP was about the REST of the government!

    Also about an entirely new power to reach out from UK-based companies anywhere and take data abroad, which is already costing UK-based companies heavily, and will de-facto rule them out in many cases (i.e. any other EU government tenders, or ones which involve data protection)

  2. Ronny

    The NSA gets rid of programs that don’t work, so if they are trying so hard to keep these programs, then they must work. But, if they are not much use against terrorism, then those programs must be working in other ways they have not told us about. The NSA etc must have a reason for these things beyond what they tell us, and that is the biggest worry, isn’t it.

  3. Ronny

    what we need to be secure from is our governments, wars may go away, terrorists may go too, but government is always with us in one form or another. If governments start protecting themselves from the people, then the people are in danger from within, not without.

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