Draft – Edward Snowden and the Growth of the Surveillence State

The 2013 report from the Attorney-General’s Department on the Telecommunications Interception and Access Act notes that “interception and stored-communications warrants” were used in 3,083 arrests, 6,898 prosecutions and 2,765 convictions. And recent changes in legislation provide the Australian Security Intelligence Operation (ASIO) new warrant powers in this area.

In June 2013, Edward Snowden’s name spread rapidly across the world after disclosing to several media outlets a huge cache of classified documents that he acquired while working as an NSA contractor. Snowden’s leaked documents revealed numerous global surveillance programs, many of them run by the U.S. Government’s National Security Agency (NSA) with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and foreign governments. The size of the surveillance operations and the information regarding their targeting has indicated the growth of surveillance and coercive powers within the U.S. Government’s intelligence operations. Part of the Snowden leak were documents that revealed phone tapping by the Australian Government of Indonesian officials, and indicate the existence of a growing culture of surveillance in Australia also.

In the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) was a significant piece of legislation that granted and regulated the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation. It greatly expanded the powers these bodies held. In 2010 following the General Election the new government said it would “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion”.

This was in response to the 2009 report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, Surveillance: Citizens and the State, that indicated increasing use of surveillance by the government was a major threat to freedoms and constitutional rights, stating, “Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country.” Prior to this, in 2004, the Information Commissioner, discussing the proposed British national identity database gave a warning, “My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society.”

As part of the new measures announced by the government in 2010, the national identity database plan was scrapped and The Protection of Freedoms Act (2012) was drafted which included several provisions related to controlling or restricting the collection, storage, retention, and use of information in government databases, and later, the conflicting Draft Communications Data Bill, which would have extended powers, for example to include web browsing history, was abandoned by the government in 2013. However in April 2014 the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was passed, and following this in June, the extent of the UK government’s interception of Google, Facebook and Twitter was officially confirmed.

The government’s most senior security official, Charles Farr, described how searches on Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as emails to or from non-British citizens abroad, could be monitored by the security services because they are deemed to be “external communications”. It was the first time that the government had admitted that UK citizens, talking via supposedly private channels in social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook direct messages, are deemed by the British government to be legitimate legal targets that do not require a warrant before intercepting.

Around this time British Parliament began plans to push through new laws requiring phone companies to keep records of customer calls and internet activity. Rights activists warn the bill sets a “dangerous precedent,” while Prime Minster David Cameron claims the consequences of not acting are “grave.” A brief step back towards balance of 2010 appears well over.

Meanwhile, American Defence spending after 9/11 skyrocketed from $33bn in 2001, to $179.2bn in 2008 according to the Congressional Research Service Report on Defense Spending 2012. According to reports in the Guardian and Washington Post in 2013, US spending on intelligence had doubled since 9/11, with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the CIA taking the biggest share, this was according to the top secret budget leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Ironically, in view of Snowden’s revelations, $3.7bn of the $52.6bn budget is dedicated to stopping whistleblowers.

His disclosures were reported as matters of public interest as much of the activity indicated was of questionable legality, if illegal actions were sanctioned by our Governments, they are accountable to the law for these. Contrary to this idea, no government official has seen a trial, but many have called for a trial against Snowden. The leak has fueled debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security, universal public freedoms and information privacy. The awareness raised and discourse created has lead to the sprawling U.S. programme of metadata collection now coming under scrutiny by US courts and the proposition of a rollback of NSA powers in the Congress. Snowden’s documents and the files leaked by Chelsea Manning (in conjunction with rise to the international stage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the unconstrained nature of the internet as a digital network) have sent some governments in the other direction. The Australian Government moved to deter future whistleblowers, increase powers of surveillance of ASIO online, and indemnify it’s intelligence agencies from prosecution in a move away from transparency and accountability.

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