Finding Our Online Balance

Edward Snowden is (smile emoji).

Or that’s how he’ll be feeling since the new EU resolution of the 29/10/15. With 285 votes to 281, MEP’s have called on member states to,

“…drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden, grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.”

The resolution continues to say that not enough is being done to “safeguard citizens’ fundamental rights” and raises concerns about surveillance measures in EU countries. This coincides, and collides, with Teresa May’s ‘Investigatory powers Bill’ – a proposal in very much the opposite direction. The legislation aims to increase GCHQ’s ability to deal with the threats of modern day technology. This not only reflects a growing fissure between the UK and Europe, but also reflects the growing need to decrypt this whole surveillance debate.

Edward Snowden is at the heart of this debate. Is he a champion of freedom or a traitor of freedom? The journalist Edward Lucas has reached the frank conclusion that all the evidence points to him being a Russian spy. Snowden is not a Russian spy. How can I be so sure? If there was even any evidence of this at all, and by Snowden’s own account NSA definitely have the capabilities to find it and would want to find it as it would validate their case; then such evidence would already be all over the worlds’ front pages. And seriously – if he was – what was his top secret mission? Operation: Enhance the Transparency of their Democracy? Even in the Kremlin’s most vodka induced state does this seem unlikely. Edward Snowden would still be on the inside if he were a spy. But one doesn’t need to give any time at all to the conspiracy theory to find fault with Snowden. He does seem to enjoy the ride, from his gimiky twitter account which only follows the NSA to his off-puttingly filmic interviews. It is ironic that his principled stand against the USA government landed him in Russia, that bastion of privacy.

But one can dislike Snowden and still appreciate his side of the argument, just as one can view Wikileaks in itself as a good thing, separate from Assange. The amount of online power available to governments is incredible, and even just the shadow of a totalitarian state should be guarded against. Taking the local example, we should be wary of giving streamlined political machines access to either the private data of journalists or to the megadata of citizens. As Snowden’s twitter feed informs me, access to megadata is essentially access to your entire browsing history. Such powers should be separated from our executive, and yet it is the executive that is accountable to keep us safe. It seems to me that as soon as you assert the state is good for something, which it is, you automatically forfeit total freedom. It now becomes a question of extent and oversight.

The Investigatory Powers Bill is necessary. It’s been fifteen years since the last legislative surveillance framework was passed – that’s a whole five years before YouTube. Reform is vital in an age of instant technologies and our intelligence services need more powers if they are to continue to protect us. The current success rate of our agencies is not a future guarantee. The world is an increasingly dangerous place, which means that increased powers are required to neutralise the platitude, and increased powers require increased oversight to ensure that they are being used to preserve freedom and democracy rather than undercut it. Therefore, there is a clear need for judicial oversight. The ‘double lock’ is essential and must extend beyond mere judicial review. In a democracy we expect our governments to exercise minimal power over us, and just as the NSA or GCHQ need to be contained by government, the government also needs to be at the mercy of an independent judiciary. It is undesirable for either the executive or the judiciary to oversee intelligence agencies on their own; indeed, neither would be capable of doing so on their own. Finding the balance between protecting liberty and liberty itself is an undertaking that must be vigorously pursued. The question now becomes: at what point is the intrusion too much to bear, so that even successfully preventing terrorist attacks isn’t worth it?

Currently, pressing the buttons on my keyboard doesn’t worry me, and, while we’re being honest, none of you worry either. According to Snowden, Google is one of the least secure search engines out there, but none of us are going to foreswear it in the name of Duck Duck Go anytime soon. While the claim ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about’ is often wrongly used to pacify debate, to an extent it does ring true. Unfortunately, there is nothing interesting enough about me for anybody to take a first look, never mind a second one. The sheer amount of online traffic that is collected – The Library of Congress gathers 5 terabytes a month – actually makes me feel less exposed. Although an honest personal feeling, I also recognise that it is an unfounded one, for the such a vast net makes it only easier for those who would do us harm to hide in the recess of the dark web. The final problem in all of this, is that the more successful the authorities are at preventing threats, and the more time that passes since 7/7 and 9/11, the more we forget the real devastation that can actually be caused at the press of a button.


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