Why is our media getting upset by the NSA and not by our own Snoopers Charter?

The recent storm over data privacy – The Guardian 06/06/13 – has not been caused by the US government accessing private data (it does) but by the fact that it has been receiving wholesale, comprehensive data of Verizon customers, sanctioned by a court order that is not specific to suspected wrongdoers. The customers whose privacy has been breached are US customers. Wholesale access to private data is probably illegal in the US just as it is here.

Verizon Logo

Verizon appear to be complying with a secret Court Order demanding that data on all users be continually handed over to the NSA

So why the massive interest over here? Because this has fuelled speculation that the large, global, companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, have also routinely made all their data available to the US Government. If that is the case then UK citizens are, of course, caught up in this illegal data gathering. All of these companies have denied that they have given access to their servers (computers) to the US government, but they acknowledge that they hand over data in accordance with court orders. See this CNet article of 12/06/13.

The twist that this was then given in the UK media is the speculation that the UK Government (in the form of GCHQ) has been the beneficiary of information about UK citizens that may have been illegally obtained by the US government in this way.

It appears that all the pundits and commentators and politicians are wringing their hands and saying how dreadful it is that the US government may be accessing all this data indiscriminately (instead of requesting specific data relating to specific circumstances relevant to national security, terrorism and so on). And yet, in the very same week, we now find that ex Home Secretaries and other political grandees of all stripes and vintages appear to be banding together to back the “Snoopers Charter” here in the UK whereby internet providers will be legally obliged to keep historic records of all our internet activities so that retrospective trawls of all our private data will be possible by our own government. See The Guardian, 13/06/2013.

St Stephen's Tower - not Big Ben!

Will Labour now support the Tories in revivifying the Snoopers Charter?

So, why should we in the UK be condemning the US government for doing what we are not condemning our own government for contemplating? OK, so the US government is probably acting illegally whereas our own government is planning to give themselves permission first. But that doesn’t make any real difference. The result is still the same: both governments are giving themselves permission one way or another to snoop on ALL of us – every single one of us – who uses the internet or (in the case of Verizon) telephone services.

By the way, time and time again in the last couple of weeks I have heard politicians and commentators refer to the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft as “internet providers”. They are not internet providers. It gives me a queasy feeling to hear the most politically powerful people make such fundamental errors. Have they any grasp at all of what they are talking about?

“Internet providers” are the companies responsible for providing the service that gives us access to the internet – eg British Telecom, Talk Talk, PlusNet, Zen. All of the data that makes up our online activity passes through these providers’ servers (computers). It is this data that our government is seeking to make the internet providers keep and store (at their own expense) so that our government can retrospectively spy on us. This is the essence of the Data Communications Bill (commonly known as the Snoopers Charter).

In contrast to internet providers, Google, Facebook, et al are providers of specific programs and services. As a necessary part of providing those services they collect, and sometimes store, the data that we give them. They do this legally and in accordance with the EULA (End User Licence Agreement) that we all fail to read when we sign up to a new online service. It is this sort of data that governments both here and in the US can request by a legal process in specific circumstances, but which the US government is now suspected of gobbling up indiscriminately.

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg – opposes the Snoopers Charter

In the long run, the outcome is the same in that the government can cause data to be stored and made available for analysis by the authorities at any time in the future. OK, this week they may be looking for ramifications to the murder in Woolwich a few weeks ago, but who is to say that next month or year they may not start searching for, say, protestors against Boris Island (assuming that Boris will continue his crusade when he becomes PM), or trades unionists, or people with ginger hair, or anyone else that the government of the day deems to be “a threat”.

If you agree with this increased surveillance by the state, then that is your right. On the other hand, if you are worried about the recent revelations in the US then you should also be worried about the Snoopers Charter. My own opinion is that giving a hostage to fortune by blurting it all out on Facebook or Twitter is just a tiny part of the trouble that we are, literally, storing up for the future if the Snoopers Charter becomes law.

© 2011-2014 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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