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European Parliament Report Criticises UK for Mass Internet Surveillance

Thursday, Jan 9th, 2014 (8:52 am) - Score 687
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The European Parliament’s civil liberties committee has today published a damning new report that heavily criticises the USA, United Kingdom and other EU member states for their activities towards fostering mass Internet surveillance, which MEPs said often appeared to involve “illegal actions” that should be prohibited.

The Draft Report follows last year’s revelations from former NSA employee, Edward Snowden, whom revealed that among other things the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had actively snooped on more than 200 of the world’s 10Gbps capable transatlantic fibre optic cables (here); this is believed to have been assisted by Vodafone and BT among others (here).

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Since then many more revelations have been revealed and today’s report claims that this and similar measures have “contributed to a fundamental shift in the work and practices of intelligence agencies, away from the traditional concept of targeted surveillance as a necessary and proportional counter-terrorism measure, towards systems of mass surveillance.”

Report Statement

This process of increasing mass surveillance has not been subject to any prior public debate or democratic decision-making. Discussion is needed on the purpose and scale of surveillance and its place in a democratic society. Is the situation created by Edward Snowden’s revelations an indication of a general societal turn towards the acceptance of the death of privacy in return for security?

Do we face a breach of privacy and intimacy so great that it is possible not only for criminals but for IT companies and intelligence agencies to know every detail of the life of a citizen? Is it a fact to be accepted without further discussion? Or is the responsibility of the legislator to adapt the policy and legal tools at hand to limit the risks and prevent further damages in case less democratic forces would come to power?

The report notes that outside of some countries, such as Germany, there has been hardly any public debate and media attention varies. The UK and France are singled out as two examples, which the report speculates could be “linked to the alleged involvement of their national intelligence services in activities with the NSA“.

Similarly the British and French parliaments have both declined participation in the LIBE Committee Inquiry and unsurprisingly the Director of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban, chose not to attend any of the public hearings. In fairness you can’t expect Spy’s to want to talk about their activities and lest we not forget that this is the land of Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

Next the report outlines five reasons why the EU might wish not to act and five reasons why it should, which we’ve listed below because they provide some useful context.

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5 Reasons NOT to Act

– The ‘Intelligence/national security argument’: no EU competence

Edward Snowden’s revelations relate to US and some Member States’ intelligence activities, but national security is a national competence, the EU has no competence in such matters (except on EU internal security) and therefore no action is possible at EU level.

– The ‘Terrorism argument’: danger of the whistleblower

Any follow up to these revelations, or their mere consideration, further weakens the security of the US as well as the EU as it does not condemn the publication of documents the content of which even if redacted as involved media players explain may give valuable information to terrorist groups.

– The ‘Treason argument: no legitimacy for the whistleblower

As mainly put forward by some in the US and in the United Kingdom, any debate launched or action envisaged further to E. Snowden’s revelations is intrinsically biased and irrelevant as they would be based on an initial act of treason.

– The ‘realism argument’: general strategic interests

Even if some mistakes and illegal activities were to be confirmed, they should be balanced against the need to maintain the special relationship between the US and Europe to preserve shared economic, business and foreign policy interests.

– The ‘Good government argument’: trust your government

US and EU Governments are democratically elected. In the field of security, and even when intelligence activities are conducted in order to fight against terrorism, they comply with democratic standards as a matter of principle. This ‘presumption of good and lawful governance’ rests not only on the goodwill of the holders of the executive powers in these states but also on the checks and balances mechanism enshrined in their constitutional systems.

5 Reasons to Act

– The ‘mass surveillance argument’: in which society do we want to live?

Since the very first disclosure in June 2013, consistent references have been made to George’s Orwell novel ‘1984’. Since 9/11 attacks, a focus on security and a shift towards targeted and specific surveillance has seriously damaged and undermined the concept of privacy. The history of both Europe and the US shows us the dangers of mass surveillance and the graduation towards societies without privacy.

– The ‘fundamental rights argument’:

Mass and indiscriminate surveillance threaten citizens’ fundamental rights including right to privacy, data protection, freedom of press, fair trial which are all enshrined in the EU Treaties, the Charter of fundamental rights and the ECHR. These rights cannot be circumvented nor be negotiated against any benefit expected in exchange unless duly provided for in legal instruments and in full compliance with the treaties.

– The ‘EU internal security argument’:

National competence on intelligence and national security matters does not exclude a parallel EU competence. The EU has exercised the competences conferred upon it by the EU Treaties in matters of internal security by deciding on a number of legislative instruments and international agreements aimed at fighting serious crime and terrorism, on setting-up an internal security strategy and agencies working in this field. In addition, other services have been developed reflecting the need for increased cooperation at EU level on intelligence-related matters: INTCEN (placed within EEAS) and the Antiterrorism Coordinator (placed within the Council general secretariat), neither of them with a legal basis.

The ‘deficient oversight argument’

While intelligence services perform an indispensable function in protecting against internal and external threats, they have to operate within the rule of law and to do so must be subject to a stringent and thorough oversight mechanism. The democratic oversight of intelligence activities is conducted at national level but due to the international nature of security threats there is now a huge exchange of information between Member States and with third countries like the US; improvements in oversight mechanisms are needed both at national and at EU level if traditional oversight mechanisms are not to become ineffective and outdated.

– The ‘chilling effect on media’ and the protection of whistleblowers

The disclosures of Edward Snowden and the subsequent media reports have highlighted the pivotal role of the media in a democracy to ensure accountability of Governments. When supervisory mechanisms fail to prevent or rectify mass surveillance, the role of media and whistleblowers in unveiling eventual illegalities or misuses of power is extremely important. Reactions from the US and UK authorities to the media have shown the vulnerability of both the press and whistleblowers and the urgent need to do more to protect them.

In the end the committee said that surveillance is nothing new, but it also warned that there was enough evidence of an “unprecedented magnitude of the scope and capacities of intelligence agencies” that required the European Union to take some action.

Some of the proposed solutions include protecting the rule of law and the fundamental rights of EU citizens, with a particular focus on threats to the freedom of the press and professional confidentiality (including lawyer-client relations), as well as enhanced protection for whistle-blowers.

The MEP’s also want the UK to revise its Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 legislation so that various clauses, such as those which offer a legal loophole for such monitoring, could be removed or perhaps adjusted to prevent abuses.

On the other hand this is precisely the sort of work that spy agencies have been doing around the world for decades and many of their efforts have had a considerably more positive than negative impact upon the country’s security. Like it or not spies do exist and often operate in areas where their actions might easily be considered illegal, yet other countries do the same and we perhaps should not allow perfect moral correctness to blind ourselves to the realities of the world.

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But there is a point where such tools can be focused so aggressively inwards that the risks to wider freedoms and civil liberties might begin to become dangerous. The price of freedom might be eternal vigilance, but what happens when the privacy of innocent citizens is removed for the sake of vigilance. It’s important to keep a balance and for such power to be well controlled and strictly focused, lest it ever be abused by a governing authority.

The committee now wants the EU to implement most of its proposals by 2015 but we wouldn’t be surprised if very little actually happens.

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Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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