Snowden Attacks “Anything Goes” Privacy Intrusions Of British Spy Agencies

In what amounts to a wake up call directed at a British public generally considered apathetic on privacy issues, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has warned that U.K. spy agencies are using digital technology to conduct mass population surveillance without any checks and balances at all — overreaching and encroaching on privacy rights in a way that he characterized as even worse than the U.S. National Security Agency’s inroads into citizens’ rights.

Snowden was making his first (virtual) appearance in the UK since blowing the whistle on the NSA last year, speaking at the Observer Festival of Ideas event being held today in London. The live videolink that looped Snowden into the event from where he has temporary asylum in Moscow was not trouble free. At one point Snowden even suggested technical hitches that were preventing him from hearing interviewer John Naughton’s questions could be the result of U.K. government attempts to block his appearance. In the event, the twenty minute interview proceeded with questions being relayed to Snowden by text.

Asked whether U.K. spy agency, GCHQ, is a bigger player in mass surveillance than the cache of NSA documents he leaked suggests, Snowden said this is indeed the case, and went on to explain why — pointing specifically to the lack of constitutional protections in the U.K. as an enabler for what he deemed a ‘limitless’ government intrusion into citizens’ privacy via digital channels.

“We have an extraordinary large, secret and unaccountable mass surveillance system in the United States — and that’s when we have constitutional protections that prohibit even the passage of any laws that might enable those programs. Despite this we have something extraordinary going on over there. Now in the United Kingdom where you don’t have the same constitutional limits on the sort of laws that parliament can pass what we’ve seen is the creation of a system of regulations where basically anything goes,” said Snowden.

“GCHQ and other British spy agencies can do anything they want. There are really no limits on their capabilities. What they do is they collect everything that might be interesting to them — which includes basically a five year backlog of all the activities of citizens in the U.K., for example by the collection of their metadata records, which is who they call, the locations that they travel where their cell phones are associated with towers.”

Back in June, a legal challenge to the U.K. government by a group of privacy rights organisations yielded corroborating detail, from a witness statement made by Charles Blandford Farr, Director General of the UK Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. Farr’s statement suggested a proportion of internal comms being sucked up by U.K. spy agencies would be necessary — and he claimed legal — collateral damage to the ‘greater good’ of snooping on potential terrorist chatter. Even though U.K. law requires public agencies to have a warrant to intercept internal comms. The basic modus operandi sketched out in the statement is to gather everything and sort after the fact for points of interest.

Snowden said the U.K. spy agencies’ claim that they protect harvested surveillance data information “on the backend” — by using policies or rules about which bits of captured information can be parsed by security agency analysts — basically boils down to saying: “Although we’ll watch all of you all the time we won’t look at what we’ve gathered on you… unless we go through a certain procedure”.

“Even if you thought it was reasonable for [governments] to collect this information, the reality is that these policy restrictions and these rules and regulations for accessing this data is not uniformly applied,” argued Snowden.

“There are exceptions, and it’s basically open season at these spy agencies,” he continued. “For example the GCHQ goes far further than the NSA in the United States does because they use unlawfully collected information to pursue basically criminal prosecutions. And they use this to share with other countries, where they will use intelligence powers — foreign intelligence powers — to gather information that’s then used for law enforcement purposes. And this is very dangerous.”

He argued that unlawfully gathered intelligence poses a danger to the U.K.’s legal and justice systems because evidence is being collected against individuals who don’t have the ability to challenge it in courts.

“If judges are not aware of where this information, where this evidence originated from, it undermines the system of laws and the system of justice upon which we all rely,” he said.

Snowden of course reiterated the mainstay of his argument — that it is in no way reasonable for governments to trample over individual privacy rights by setting up systems that spy on entire populations. The onus should be on governments to justify any intrusions into citizens’ rights — or those ‘rights’ effectively no longer exist.

“That’s not how rights work, right,” he said. “You don’t have to say why you deserve privacy, you don’t have to say ‘I need the right to privacy for this reason or for that reason’, it’s up to the government to justify its intrusions into your rights, you as a citizen never have to justify why you need a right, or it’s not a right at all, it’s something circumstantial.”

Snowden was also asked for follow up on comments he made yesterday, at the New Yorker Festival, in which he suggested people should steer clear of popular commercial services that don’t protect their privacy — like Dropbox, Facebook, and Google. Was he seriously suggesting people should avoid using services from those companies, asked Naughton?

“What I’m trying to say is not that these services are the worst thing on planet Earth, what I’m trying to say is when we as consumers have an option between two services where one protects your privacy very strongly — it values it very highly — and another that is actually hostile to privacy we should support the one that supports our rights, that encodes that into their policies and into their technologies,” said Snowden.

He conceded it is now “very difficult” to find an alternative to Facebook which provides the same service but asserted there are “many, many clones of Dropbox-style services” — pointing to alternative services such as SpiderOak which don’t hold encryption keys themselves and therefore can’t be forced to hand over user data to governments requesting access.

“Any government in the world, from the United States government, to the U.K. government, to the Chinese government can request access to your files and [Dropbox] can provide it,” he said, adding that warrants requesting information should be served not to commercial companies holding users’ data but against the individuals whose data is being sought so they have a chance to challenge a government request.

Snowden was also asked to comment directly on the challenge posed by public apathy when it comes to privacy rights — and how government intrusions can be combated if populations aren’t mobilized to demand change.

He argued that the chance for change still exists, despite regional political apathy, if technologists mobilize to bake privacy protections into their products. “If there’s even one part of the world — one region; it could be Germany, it could be the United States — where we have a technical community that believes this is a real problem, that believes that mass surveillance — the GCHQ strategy of amassing a haystack of human lives and then sorting through it whenever they want to try and and find needles — is contrary to the values that we as a society hold, they can institute protections on the technical level that enforce our rights in a way that’s not dependent on national laws,” he said.

Indeed, he went further — arguing that technology solutions may actually be required to safeguard individual rights in an increasingly connected world. “If things are not encoded on a technical level, if things are not enforced on the level of systems, rather than just words on a page, they’re not really going to be meaningful when all our systems are reliance on cross border, international communications,” he added. “We need international solutions for global problems.”

Naughton also asked whether Snowden was surprised that other whistleblowers have emerged since he came forward — a reference to the apparent second NSA whistleblower revealed in Laura Poitras’ documentary about Snowden.

“I’m not,” said Snowden. “I actually think it was inevitable.”

“We should praise the act. I’m an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. This other individual, whoever they may be, it’s extraordinarily courageous that after seeing the whistleblowers that have come before, people in the United States, people that have had their lives destroyed, they’ve had their careers destroyed, they’ve been thrown in prison for 35 years, that this person would stand up and put their life on the line because they believe that they have a civic duty — that they hold to more closely than they do to their self interest — and that is something that I don’t care who the individual is,” he added.

“I don’t care whether they are the deepest darkest criminal. That is something we should respect. That is something we should value. And it is something that we should promote. Everyone has a role to play in their government, everyone has a role to play in their society, and if you believe in something you have to stand for something.”