Edward Snowden’s revelations have been described as ‘the most significant leak in US history’. Marienna Pope-Weidemann looks at the background and what it means for internet freedom


Total surveillance of the global population, that old Orwellian nightmare, has become a reality. It is being conducted by private contractors across the world, under the jurisdiction of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and their secret courts, and in Britain with the complicity of our government, who have been tapping information from the covert Prism programme since 2010.

Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Skype and a host of telephone providers have been implicated. And Edward Snowden, the man who told the world, is now held up in Moscow Airport. An international witch hunt is under way to prevent him escaping by a path paved by Wikileaks to asylum in Ecuador.

‘The most significant leak in US history’

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the explosive Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War, has described the Prism files as the most significant leak in US history. As David Cameron was quick to point out, the surveillance being conducted is entirely ‘within the law’ – but that should hardly be a comfort. This beyond Orwellian surveillance programme is facilitated by the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA): a Jurassic piece of legislation which dates back to the early 1970s and whose operation is overseen by secret courts.

FISA’s mandate was expanded in section 2.5 of the US Patriot Act. It was passed in the aftermath of 9/11 without the ethical restrictions which characterised traditional phone tapping practices. Neither did it contain any amendments to ensure privacy protection in an era when mobile communications turn a phone tap into a perpetual tracking device. According to Susan Landough, a cyber-security expert interviewed by Democracy Now, the metadata (that’s phone numbers, duration and location of calls) being stored can be, if anything, more revealing than the actual content of conversations: “Metadata reveals a remarkable amount about a person, who they are, whom they associate with, who they spend their nights with, where they travel. All that kind of information is very private and deserves constitutional protection.”

The program’s defenders in Silicon Valley and the NSA argue that it simply provides a more efficient mechanism for the storing of data already being collected for security purposes. But it is hard to see why, if this were the case, even companies like Yahoo took the NSA to (secret) court on the grounds that participation in the Prism programme would violate users’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Following the leak, Obama was forced to recognise the existence of the surveillance programme, but pointed out that ‘no one is listening to your phone calls’. Just as the NSA was caught out lying to Congress, now Obama has been caught out lying to the world. According to a subsequent leak by another former NSA analyst, Russell Tise, “the NSA today is collecting everything – including content – from every digital communication in this country, both computer and phone, and that information is being stored indefinitely.”

In 2011, Senator Ron Wyden warned Congress of the dangers posed by the Patriot Act, and the covert nature of the so-called oversight systems in place: “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they are going to be stunned, and they are going to be angry… The fact is, anyone can read the plain text of the Patriot Act. Yet the fact remains that Congress has no idea how the act is being secretly interpreted by the executive branch because that interpretation is classified.”

What this amounts to is the exercise of repressive ‘secret laws’ which are completely antithetical to the ideals of liberal democracy. Here we have a massive, unconstitutional and global surveillance-industrial complex, installed by secret intelligence agencies and approved at the highest level of government without the knowledge of most British or American politicians – let alone the public.

Furthermore, all indications point to there being much more under the surface. After a classified briefing by NSA officials last Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez said: “What we learned in there is significantly more than what is out in the media today… I believe it’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Just some guy who sits in an office…

Edward Snowden, a 29 year old analyst, was privately contracted for the NSA in Hawaii and an ex-CIA senior adviser. For revealing the megalithic Prism surveillance system he has been fired, stripped of his citizenship, persecuted by the so-called ‘liberal media’ and charged by his government with espionage. The issue has also divided the US government. While Dick Cheney has described him as a ‘traitor’ and probable Chinese Spy and several journalists and politicians calling for the death penalty, bipartisan opposition to the Prism programme is on the rise and even members of the Homeland Security Committee, previously unaware of the programme, have denied the leak compromises national security and expressed their gratitude for being informed.

In a video interview given from a secret location in Hong Kong, Snowden described himself as ‘just some guy who sits in an office and watches what’s happening’, but admitted he never expected to feel safe again:

“If living un-freely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept, and I think many of us are, you can get up every day, go to work, collect your large pay cheque, for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night… But if you realise that’s the world you helped create, and it’s going to get worse with each generation, you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk, and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is so long as the public gets to make their own decisions.”

The crusade launched by the US media against Snowden, like that against Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, has been vicious. Now under scrutiny is his psychology, integrity, patriotism and girlfriend – everything, basically, but his bosses. Even so, according to Time Magazine, Snowden continues to enjoy a higher approval rating (54%) than either Congress or President Obama.

Coverage of the story has become an effective litmus test for journalistic standards, which the bulk of the mainstream media is failing miserably. With honourable exception, notably the Guardian’s Glen Greenwald, it has been widely forgotten that for the media to do its job, it must be able – or at least willing – to protect those who volunteer information which not only sells papers, but is undoubtedly an issue of public interest. The bulk of news media today is governed exclusively by commercial interest, which is tempered only when the imperative to sell contradicts the most well-established political interests. Only then will the potential profit from covering an international scandal like this be given up to maintain their ‘special relationship’ with the state. With the political leaders of ‘the free world’ trying to relegate source protection to the history books, the political role of journalism in representative democracy has never been more contradictory.

GCHQ: watching you

Here in Britain, the Guardian revealed recently that the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) intercepted the communications of foreign representatives at the G20 summits in 2009. British intelligence set up fake internet cafes to spy on allies and ‘enemies’ alike. According to an internal review, analysts were for the first time able to relay ‘a live picture of who was talking to who’ for the benefit of British representatives. Numerous allies have reacted with fury at the scandal, with the British ambassador to Turkey being summoned directly to Ankara to explain himself.

Of course, it’s not just other governments they’re watching. Under the Con-Dem Coalition, GCHQ has been outsourcing the covert surveillance of its population to the NSA and playing hopscotch in its legal loopholes. In fact, the American project no longer runs alone. The British police’s Social Media Intelligence programme, described as ‘Prism’s little brother’, has been found to be gathering the personal data and communications of all Facebook, Twitter and YouTube users, and arrests made on the back of such information are on the rise. The law allows for the automatic surveillance of any customer in any country using US-based providers (whose data is subject to the Patriot Act).

This has been a quiet but hideous revelation about just how intimate the US-UK special relationship really is. It should also have been a nation-wide embarrassment for the Liberal Democrats. Before entering the government, they cast themselves for years as the last stewards of our civil liberties. They criticised power-obsessed governments for ‘chipping away at our liberty in the name of security.’ Nick Clegg was recently nominated (ironically alongside Snowden) for the ‘hero’ shortlist in the Internet Service Providers Association Awards (winner still to be announced…). Ultimately, Lib Dem silence on the issue of mass secret surveillance has deafened their mews over the so-called ‘Snoopers’ Charter’: a debate which is now entirely redundant.

“There is no empire that can intimidate us” – President Maduro, Venezuela

This Cold War-style drama is fast blossoming into an international incident and has the potential to create a global political crisis for the US and the UK. The European Commission, whose Washington offices were found to be bugged, has described the leak as ‘disturbing’ and demanded full and transparent clarification of the NSA’s surveillance activities: a demand thus far met by deafening silence.

The story also prompted a security sweep by staff of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, which revealed hidden bugs. On Wednesday, the scandal reached new heights when Bolivia’s Presidential plane, carrying President Morales, was intercepted, stalled until low on fuel and then forced to land in Austria based on unfounded suspicions that Snowden had stowed away on board. President Morales was ‘held’ until officials had searched the plane: a grave insult, and certainly not something you can imagine Cameron taking on the chin.

Where now for the whistleblower?

Snowden is still held up in Moscow Airport, looking for an escape hatch. He has reportedly sought asylum in 21 countries including Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, and also Iceland, the Netherlands and the historical fence-sitter, Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, William Hague was quick to issue a statement stating Snowden would not be allowed into the UK because he is considered ‘detrimental to the public good’.

Assange has advised him to head to South America, but unlike the Wikileaks founder, Snowden is not on Ecuadorean territory, and asylum requests cannot generally be granted to anyone on foreign territory. With his passport revoked, it remains an open question if he can get there. In a not-too veiled challenge to the Russian government, Assange told Sky News: “It will be telling which countries genuinely protect human rights, the privacy of the public, and asylum rights. Which countries will actually do that and which are scared of the United States and which are in bed with the surveillance complex, like GCHQ is here in London.”

Indeed it has been telling. Wikileaks’ alliance with Russia Today has apparently not been sufficient to impress upon the Putin administration the potential benefits of providing meaningful protection to American whistleblowers. Such a position would be geopolitically strategic in that it would secure a space for a counter-narrative against Anglo-American imperialism to develop. It would also evoke the support and respect of the countless ordinary people, organisations and progressive governments the world over who recognise the enormous value of leaks like these to international democracy.

Russian human rights groups are already mounting a campaign to pressure Putin to grant him asylum in Russia, with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Russian Human Rights Bureau and Anti-Corruption Committee all calling for their government to take a stand. Even so, Putin has already began to capitulate to US pressure, stating that Snowden may only remain in Russia if he stops his work ‘aimed at damaging our American partners.’ So it appears that the clock has started ticking.

The US government has now charged Snowden under the 1917 Espionage Act, which was also used to bludgeon Bradley Manning. This is significant. Espionage is punishable by life imprisonment. Its use to persecute whistleblowers and the journalists that work with them implies that speaking to the press is tantamount to communicating with the enemy during wartime: a grave offence punishable by death under US law. Cases like Manning, Assange and Snowden are being used to launch a systematic ideological attack on the entire principle of press freedom. It is a bid, ultimately, to criminalise investigative journalism whenever it fulfils its purpose: which is to act as a check on tyranny, and keep the public informed on key decisions made in their name, especially, not except, when secrecy is involved.

Social networking and social change: the difference

These revelations have not come as a shock to the citizens of our CCTV nation. Public response to the story, while generally supportive of Snowden’s case, has been marked by a sense of resignation. People have become accustomed to being lied to by their government. The implication here is that, as vital and powerful as the ‘inform-for-change’ strategy of Wikileaks and the whistleblowers has been, it doesn’t stand on its own. Education is no substitute for raising the political confidence necessary to challenge that norm. Good journalism provides essential ammunition, but lacks the necessary force without the ideological fabric of a social movement able to support an alternative analysis of the role the media should play, or the extent to which the public have a democratic right to involve themselves in such matters.

It is also a powerful warning against the dangers of idealising communications technology. As significant as the loss of common land during the enclosure movements of past centuries, is the enclosure movement now being levied against common cyberspace today. Under popular control, democratically accountable, it is a liberating force that empowers those who engage with it. It has the ability to break down the barriers created by time and space, language and culture, and bring people together in an entirely new way. But in reality, control and ownership of online information is being increasingly centralised.

There is nothing intrinsic to the fabric of the internet that secures its progressive potential. It is a contested battleground, and the willingness of Western governments to contest it – pushing for file-sharing restrictions, abolishing online privacy, persecuting whistleblowers and prosecuting Wikileaks with a secret Grand Jury – illustrates its importance. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the witch hunt for whistleblowers is motivated by political rather than security concerns. While terrorist and organised crime networks have the money and motivation to encrypt their sensitive data, it is the conscience-driven whistleblower and everyday activist who is being watched.

As privacy campaigner John Perry Barlow has pointed out:

“our security is vastly more compromised by the existence of secret laws and secret practices that are not being conducted with the consent of a democratic public… The whole notion of what we’re defending here and what we’re defending ourselves against is made completely null and void… We [America] are taking it upon ourselves to monitor the communications of the human race, and we don’t have the right to do that.”

Media matters

One pertinent lesson from Prism is that media ownership matters. Prism is not primarily a security programme. Certainly it is used to track those the NSA suspects of whatever it defines as ‘terrorist activity’. But it is also being used for the total surveillance of domestic and foreign populations, and sovereign governments.

Yes, it is shocking the intelligence agencies have been able to co-opt the courts to produce secret orders and embroil some of the largest telecomm corporations in their covert activity. But it is only because the internet is increasingly monopolised by a handful of these corporations that pressure upon them can yield a total surveillance system installed in secret right under our noses. Technology is a double-edged sword, and if this precedent goes forwards unopposed, our ability to communicate instantaneously and show global solidarity becomes a weakness because the state has a fly on every wall.

Of course, when governments want to use the media as an anonymous mouthpiece, they leak information themselves. It’s a tactic they have used for generations to break movements, swing elections and start wars. But no amount of respect for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ will incentivise them to publicise their own abuses of power. Once upon a time, the free press was the most powerful, democratic check on this ability of the state to doctor the historical record. It was our means to speak truth to power and shine a light into the darker corners of Westminster and Washington. Bradley Manning has been in a cell for over 1,100 days. It was the sanctity of press freedom which once protected those like him, but the kind of investigative journalism that is vital democracy is now being criminalised.

The case against the corporate media has never been clearer; nor the need to develop online and independently funded alternatives. But for their safety to be assured, the battle for internet freedom and online anonymity must be fought, and it must be won. It has never been more important because Big Brother has never before stared so hard – or been keeping so many secrets.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.