When it comes to surveillance, we’re probably all in it together

The PRISM/Tempora/XKeyscore/Snowden affair is a fiendishly complex one and we are only part of the way towards unravelling it — if indeed that ever actually happens. What’s more, the subject means different things to different people: if you are in the U.S., it’s a matter of the extent to which your government has been spying on you; if you are in Germany, such as I am, there’s the added factor of a foreign government spying on you.
From my perspective — that of a South African/British journalist living in Germany and writing for a U.S. blog — I have found it useful to try to distill what’s going on into as simplified and likely a scenario as possible, while of course keeping an open mind to other possibilities. At the moment, the summary holds that a bunch of “western” countries are spying on one another’s citizens, on one another’s behalf, in order to get around their respective privacy laws.

Five Eyes

I am aware that this is not an original analysis. There have long been allegations that the UKUSA agreement, which despite its name also includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand, secretly involves intelligence sharing of this kind. The 2001 European Parliament report into the ECHELON program quoted former Canadian spook Mike Frost as saying exactly that — he claimed that the British intelligence agency GCHQ asked its Canadian counterpart “to spy on two British government ministers when Prime Minister Thatcher wanted it to tell her if they were on her side.”
However, the current scandal seems to be underlining this take on things, and that’s something that’s crucial to bear in mind. A lot of people in Europe are pretty annoyed at the U.S. right now, but what about the fact that U.S. citizens are probably — not definitely, I do realize — also being spied on by foreigners?
On Thursday the Guardian published its latest Snowden-derived scoop, namely that the NSA has funded the U.K.’s GCHQ to the tune of £100 million ($152 million) over the past three years, which is not coincidentally the rough operational timeframe thus far for the Tempora wiretapping scheme.
Tempora — part of which goes under the cunning codename of Mastering The Internet — allegedly includes the tapping of the transatlantic cables running from Cornwall. Most of these cables run to the U.S., although others run to Europe, Canada, India and West Africa. According to the Guardian piece, £15.5m of the NSA cash went to redevelopments of this station, at Bude.
Snowden’s leaks suggest data captured over these cables is stored en masse for up to 30 days. The likelihood that U.S. citizens’ data is not stored in this way is, to my mind, vanishingly small.

Governments’ agreement

Meanwhile, on Tuesday this week the McClatchy news organization sent a letter to U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper demanding to know whether the NSA helped the New Zealand military spy on a McClatchy reporter, Jon Stephenson, who had been reporting for New Zealand newspapers from Afghanistan. Stephenson had reported on war crimes allegedly perpetrated by New Zealand forces there, and the NSA has been accused of monitoring his phone calls on the New Zealand military’s behalf.
Certainly in terms of capability, it seems the framework is there for all these countries to spy on each other, with the agreement of their governments. The evidence we have increasingly suggests that each country can easily requisition information, gathered by allies, on people they wouldn’t be able to legally monitor themselves — whether or not they do so regularly is a matter than still needs to come out clearly.
A big question now is the extent to which this alliance of governments (if not their people) takes in countries outside the so-called Five Eyes. It certainly appears that the NSA has been sharing its XKeyscore system, which indexes much of what happens on the internet, with the Germans. Outside the matter of the U.S. bugging European institutions, which drew furious condemnation from France in particular, EU governments’ reaction to the whole PRISM affair has actually been fairly muted — we still don’t fully know why this is.
The point we can take away from this state of affairs is that we are probably all in this together. This is important because there is sometimes a tendency to frame PRISM and its related programs as a matter of the U.S. versus Europe and/or other countries. In what is likely reality (yes, I’m hedging on this, even at this stage), U.S. citizens are also getting spied on by outsiders, and European and perhaps other allied governments are effectively spying on their own citizens.
This stuff is really complicated — both ethically and in the details. Let’s hope things become clearer over time.