“We are spying in a transparent world.”
So claimed Timothy Edgar, President Obama’s first-ever director of privacy and civil liberties for the White House National Security Staff, at Britain’s Parliament today. Even with the emergence of new proposed limitations on the NSA’s unprecedented data collection, the crux was that nation-states engagement in broad-based surveillance is now an intrinsic component to realpolitik, in a digital planet running on big data.
Joined by Privacy International’s director Gus Hosein, and British MPs Julian Huppert, David Davis and Chi Onwurah, and hosted by Big Brother Watch, Edgar detailed the rise and rise of the secret surveillance state and its murky legal basis beginning with the Bush administration’s introduction of and exploitation of the Patriot Act to its continued use under the Obama administration. Edgar insisted in his address that now more than ever rules and reform are necessary in securing protections for American citizens and people all over the world.
Outlining his vision in line with a Guardian Op-Ed piece earlier this year, Edgar asserted that if America is to be at ease with its allies and act diplomatically first instead of using coercion, the civil liberties and private affairs of foreign citizens must be taken into account as well as those of Americans. This notion is beginning to take root within the intelligence community, which, he says, is a leap in thinking.
Despite the tough talk on balancing security and liberty, there was the sense of a whitewash. It’s hard to swallow the idea that more oversight alone will go a long way towards solving problems in a country unique in the extent of its oversight, as Edgar emphasized. Even if the NSA was subject to legal restrictions, the scale of state spying was unconfirmed until the actions of whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The collection of vast amounts of metadata was left essentially untouched in Obama’s proposed directive in January this year, and so the problem here is that applying these limitations presumes a legitimacy of the NSA’s methods.
In Edgar’s eyes, intelligence services have a mission that’s “broader than counter-intelligence,” and he believes that this is “appropriate.”
“That doesn’t mean that collection initiatives can’t be more limited than they are for counter terrorism,” he said. “We could distinguish between the reasons we need intelligence collection, and have stricter rules for a broader collection than we do for genuine security threats. But I think it would be naive to assume we are going to limit intelligence collection to only international security threats.”
Can even the smallest victories in reform be effective, so long as agencies operating in the dark are prepared to maneuver through legal loopholes to get what they want? The wheels may be in motion for a light touch of legislation, but what’s being proposed is not much more than damage control. Edgar was asked about the potential for stricter legislation but his answer was a quasi-vigilant wait-and-see.
“I don’t think we know yet,” Edgar said. “They haven’t actually implemented the entire directive. The Director of National Intelligence is putting together proposed limits, and the General Counsel is meeting with human rights groups next week I don’t think the world should trust the American government simply because Obama made a speech. Obama’s good at making speeches – the question is whether there are limits that result in effective reforms.”
“If, in 5 or 10 years, we have scandals about why the NSA broke the rules that protect the privacy rights of foreigners, that’s going to mean that the rules are taken seriously, that’s going to mean there’s an oversight system that’s catching potential violations of those rules. But if in 10 years nobody remembers there was supposedly a directive in January 2014 to put some reforms in place, then you should probably be suspicious that nothing really has changed,” he said.
Privacy International’s Gus Hosein aired his own ominous predictions on the short and long-term potential effects if the Five Eyes nations, the USA, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, carry on as they are.
“There are dark implications of our actions,” Hosein explained. “Governments around the world are rubbing their hands with glee because this government paved the way for mass surveillance, and they are thinking we can do the same.
“The French are giggling, let alone every country in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, who is buying British technology that does exactly the same thing.
“Not only are we inspiring, but we are providing the technologies to enable what this [Britain’s] government is doing, what the US is doing. At least the US is being held to account to some extent. A lot more work needs to be done here, because if we don’t do it, it’s going to be disastrous.”
Perhaps what’s worth highlighting is that this conversation would not have seen the light of day without Snowden – who himself claimed to have exhausted all of the official channels for oversight before going public. And that suggests an altogether more radical approach may be required than slightly more oversight, even if the latter is a small step in the right direction.