GCHQ and American attitudes to surveillance…

(Image c/o Christian Payne on Flickr.)

From Wired:

GCHQ’s hacking operations are conducted with little to no oversight and risk “undermining the security of the internet”, leading online privacy experts have warned. Even when oversight is required, GCHQ has revealed that ministers don’t have the technical knowledge to understand what it is doing. Privacy campaigners today described the issue as “a major scandal”.

Details of GCHQ’s hacking operations and attempts to weaken encryption were revealed in a parliamentary committee report into the UK’s surveillance capabilities. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) review, published last week, revealed GCHQ makes the majority of decisions about hacking, and its operations to weaken encryption, internally and without telling ministers exactly what it is doing.

In a passage quoted by the Open Rights Group, the ISC review found that:

No additional Ministerial Authorisation is required for these activities. There are internal procedures: ***. There is no legal requirement to inform Ministers: however, GCHQ have said that they would ask the Foreign Secretary to approve a specific operation of this kind “where the political or economic risks were sufficiently high” (although, in practice, they manage their operations to avoid this level of risk). GCHQ told the Committee that:

The FCO is aware of the activity and the possible political risk, but individual legal authorisations are not required for each operation. The FCO could assess the political risk of a compromise, it is not well‐placed to assess the complex technical risk. Whilst not formally overseen by a Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner has been briefed on this type of activity where it relates to individual approved operations.

A very disturbing admission about the state of digital surveillance in the UK. And the timing of the statement from ORG could not be more apposite. Whilst we are only just starting to come to terms with the consequences of this, a study in the US has been published that explores the fall-out from the Snowden revelations in terms of how it has affected behaviours as well as how it has impacted upon the relationship between the state and the individual.

The Pew Research Center’s report, Americans’ Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden, provides a comprehensive and fascination exploration of how these revelations have affected US citizens. There is a lot to plough through, but a few things stand out on an initial reading (and, by the way, wouldn’t it be nice if someone in the UK produced the kind of reports that Pew produce on a regular basis, particularly with respect to the Snowden revelations). Top line stuff:

Overall, nearly nine-in-ten respondents say they have heard at least a bit about the government surveillance programs to monitor phone use and internet use. Some 31% say they have heard a lot about the government surveillance programs and another 56% say they had heard a little. Just 6% suggested that they have heard “nothing at all” about the programs. The 87% of those who had heard at least something about the programs were asked follow-up questions about their own behaviors and privacy strategies:

34% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (30% of all adults) have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. For instance, 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications. 

1 in 3 people changing their behaviours is quite significant, and would explain why there are increasing moves to shut down the methods by which people protect themselves. One might also ask how Cameron would deal with 14% of people speaking in person rather than communicating online (given he thinks no form of communication should be free from surveillance).


 

…the public generally believes it is acceptable for the government to monitor many others, including foreign citizens, foreign leaders, and American leaders:

82% say it is acceptable to monitor communications of suspected terrorists

60% believe it is acceptable to monitor the communications of American leaders.

60% think it is okay to monitor the communications of foreign leaders

54% say it is acceptable to monitor communications from foreign citizens

Yet, 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens.


In this survey, 17% of Americans said they are “very concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communication; 35% say they are “somewhat concerned”; 33% say they are “not very concerned” and 13% say they are “not at all” concerned about the surveillance. Those who are more likely than others to say they are very concerned include those who say they have heard a lot about the surveillance efforts (34% express strong concern) and men (21% are very concerned).


 

Some quotes from those who argue that they are unconcerned about surveillance:

“Law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide and should not be concerned.”

“I am not doing anything wrong so they can monitor me all they want.”

“Small price to pay for maintaining our safe environment from terrorist activities.”

All of which, to my mind, underline a certain failure to grasp the nature of the state and its relationship with individuals. Of course, it is not individuals who determine whether what they are doing is wrong. The lie of “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear” seems to be one of the hardest to shift, despite its fairly obvious naivety about the state. It also underlines that state propaganda is very effective on large chunks of the populace (I’m not restricting that to the US by the way). So long as you keep talking about threats (which are minimal) and highlighting the importance of “protecting citizens” from “dangerous individuals”, some people will continue to believe that the state will protect them and that sacrifices to their rights must be made to ensure that protection. There’s nothing new in this, states have used that particular strategy for centuries: construct an external enemy, convince the populace that the state has the means to protect them, chip away at individual rights under the guise of protection etc etc.


 

Sophisticated tools and techniques are widely available and can help online Americans increase the privacy and security of their online activities and personal data sharing. However, thus far, fairly few have adopted these tools since learning about the programs. Among those who have heard about the government surveillance programs:

10% say they have used a search engine that doesn’t keep track of their search history.
5% have added privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins like DoNotTrackMe (now known as Blur) or Privacy Badger.
4% have adopted mobile encryption for calls and text messages.
3% have used proxy servers can help them avoid surveillance.
2% have adopted email encryption programs such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP).
2% have used anonymity software such as Tor.
1% have used locally-networked communications such as FireChat.

It’s interesting that despite the fears and clear concern about the surveillance programme, many people are not using the most effective tools to protect themselves (I would include myself in that category if there were a UK equivalent study). This suggests there is a lot of work to do to inform the general public about how they can protect themselves online. I would guess that Barclays’ Digital Eagles probably won’t offer much help here. It seems to me that, and I probably would say this, librarians are well placed to provide this kind of assistance (see Library Freedom Project). Certainly given our professional ethics, this is an area that should concern us and that we should seek to provide solutions to for the general public. There is clearly a need as, looking at the figures, there is concern and a need to seek protection. One would assume that this would also be the case in the UK but, again, there is no such study at present.

I’d definitely recommend going through the Pew stats if you get the chance. There is a PDF report you can download, but lots of interesting stats are summarised over 5 web pages. Will such a study be conducted in the UK? It seems unlikely at this stage, but with the revelations about the activities of GCHQ and how ministerial oversight appears to be virtually non-existent, a study equivalent to Pew’s would be very welcome.

Douglas Murray – our generation’s greatest defender of free expression?

(Image via Marco Bernardini on Flickr)

“If you cannot lampoon bad ideas it means you can only lampoon good ideas. If you must refrain from insulting targets which might harm you then you will be limited to only insulting targets which are harmless. The problem then is not simply that you let bad ideas get a free pass; it means bad ideas have the opportunity to win.”

 So wrote Douglas Murray in his passionate defence for free speech. Passionate, yet also hypocritical because Murray only defends free speech when it hurts minorities, not when it threatens power.

You may have come across Murray before on those light-weight political chat shows. With his perfect pronunciation and calm authority, he comes across as a serious intellectual force to be respected. But then we remember the context: these are light-weight political chat shows. It is not difficult to come across as a heavy hitting, respectable intellectual when it comes to these kinds of programmes. The reality is, when you listen a little closer, Murray is almost paper light when it comes to intellectual rigour.

Take his piece the above quote was taken from. Murray also writes:

“Simultaneously in the media there are supporters of the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who portray his theft and dissemination of thousands of British and American national security secrets in such a light. At very few times in history would freedom of expression and the “freedom” to steal vast swathes of secret government information and then dump it in such a fashion that only enemies of the state could gain from it have been confused. But they are widely confused here, and it represents only a portion of the mix-up.”

And this is where Murray’s shakey ground reveals itself. We can have freedom of expression when it comes to insulting Muslims and their “bad ideas” but when it comes to the state and its “bad ideas” there are limits. Where these bad ideas threaten individual liberty, they must be defended rather than exposed. The limits of freedom expression must be determined by our security services, who should be free to constrain any expression that seeks to undermine the state surveillance network.

Back when Snowden’s revelations came to light, Murray was critical of the papers that published details of the information exposed by Snowden. In one article, Murray asserted that the editorial team at The Guardian, including Alan Rusbridger, were either “grossly negligent” or “worse than criminal”. That’s too say that, according to Murray, publishing a story about a bad idea and criticising this bad idea was “criminal ” which seems at odds with his proclaimed belief in the absolute values of freedom of expression.

The problem with Murray is that he defines freedom of expression in very narrow terms. It is ok to ridicule Muslims or to publicly criticise their faith and belief system (Muslims are a frequent target for Murray), but is not OK to expose the state and state actors to the same standard. For Murray, we must not be permitted to either expose or criticise state activity that threatens our civil liberties. Some “bad ideas” get a free pass. For Murray it’s the “bad ideas” of the powerful that warrant a free pass. If we reduce freedom of expression to only being able to criticise and ridicule the powerless rather than the powerful, then that is no freedom at all.

Do we really have a right to offend?

Image c/o ed_needs_a_bicycle on Flickr.

(Image c/o ed_needs_a_bicycle on Flickr.)

There has been a growing trend in recent years to argue that there is effectively a “right to offend”, that people do not have a right to take offence.  But is there a “right to offend”? It certainly seems that an increasing number of people believe that there is such a thing (this often comes mixed in with arguments over the right to free speech), from Cristina Odone to David Cameron to Stephen Fry to Ricky Gervais. Confounding what one might reasonably expect, this notion of the “right to cause offence” has embedded itself across the political spectrum. Everyone from the liberal left to the far-right have pushed the line that no-one has the “right to be offended”, based on the notion that people choose to be offended by speech and can choose not to expose themselves to hateful messages and harmful language if they don’t want to see it. As far as the defenders of this so-called “right” are concerned, words are incapable of causing actual harm and therefore any sense of “offence” is meaningless. Of course, this train of thought relies on the belief that words are devoid of any social, cultural or historical context and merely exist in isolation. Which, of course, they do not.

The right to offend

We’ve seen the rise in this “right to offend” mentality in light of the attack on the “satirical” magazine Charlie Hebdo. Here, again, the argument that we should be able to offend whoever we want emerges. It is, so the proponents argue, the right of the cartoonists to insult Muslims, whether they are rich or poor, in positions of power or the disenfranchised. Unlike good satire (which should always punch up not down), broad brush cartoons attacking Muslims are indiscriminate. They do not distinguish between those in power and those without.

When it comes to free speech, we have already accepted as a society that this is not an absolute right. There are limits enshrined in law (although there are those who argue that these limits should not apply). Freedoms have to be balanced, we cannot argue that all rights are absolute, as there are times when these freedoms come into conflict. For example, the right to be able to live in a safe environment and not feel threatened by others, surely trumps the right to free speech (particularly when it comes to racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia etc). Not for nothing did the German constitution of 1949 stipulate that:

“Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

We all have a right to live with dignity, to live free from the threatening and abusive conduct of others.

Furthermore, we cannot overlook our responsibilities in exercising our right to free speech. One cannot use language that is offensive or threatening to minorities or marginalised groups whilst also detaching oneself from the responsibilities inherent in using such language. As Will Self recently argued, “our society makes a fetish of ‘the right to free speech’ without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right”. We have to be responsible for the language we use and the harm it causes. We cannot wash our hands of it and push the responsibility solely onto the victim for their response.

It is necessary to accept that there are limits, whereas the “right to offend” suggests there are none. And yet, as a society we have accepted that there are limits. As Gary Younge points out in The Guardian, every country restrains free speech to a degree:

In 2005 Le Monde was found guilty of “racist defamation” against Israel and the Jewish people. In 2008 a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo was fired after refusing to apologise for making antisemitic remarks in a column. And two years before the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons of Muhammad in 2006, it rejected ones offering a light-hearted take on the resurrection of Christ for fear they would “provoke an outcry”.

Far from being “sacred”, as some have claimed, freedom of speech is always contingent. All societies draw lines, that are ill-defined, constantly shifting and continually debated, about what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse when it comes to cultural, racial and religious sensitivities. The question is whether those lines count for Muslims too.

Indeed, France has been struggling with this in the light of the terrorist attacks, arresting those who have made distasteful “jokes” seen to be in support of those responsible for the series of murders that rocked the country.

We have, as a society, broadly accepted that there is a right to be offended (albeit in very particular terms ie hate speech). It’s no real surprise to find that the vast majority of those who defend the “right to offend” are white, middle class males. These individuals cannot be “offended” because their culture is not under threat they are the ones who, after all, wield the power in our society. When you have power, what is there to be offended by?

Free speech and religion

Although I am a (fairly militant) atheist, I tend to see that there is a significant difference between criticising a religion such as Islam and Christianity in the West. We often hear that Christianity is an easy target – we’re all happy to laugh at Christianity, but wouldn’t dream of doing so with regard to Islam. There is, of course, a substantial difference between the two. We live in a country built on Christian beliefs, on Christian traditions. I grew up in a Christian country. A country where Christianity wields power that other religions do not – 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords and can make or break government legislation. No other religious group has such representation at the seat of power.

We do not have a “right” to mock Christianity per se, but mockery in the face of a force that wields power is reasonable, particularly as it is the dominant religious identity. Islam, on the other hand, is not. It is not part of my cultural heritage and is certainly not accepted as part of our supposed “shared cultural identity”. I have no connection to it. It is something ‘other’. It is not my place to lampoon it because it is not my culture to lampoon. I have no understanding of Islam and its tenets (even if I did, I would still feel uncomfortable exclusively ridiculing a religion that is not part of my cultural heritage). However, I do have ample understanding of Christianity. Mocking Islam as someone brought up in a Western Christian cultural environment makes me feel very uncomfortable. I would not mock other aspects of others’ cultural heritage or identity so why should I mock their beliefs, no matter how irrational they appear to be?

Our freedoms…

Meanwhile, whilst the best efforts have been made to ensure our eyes are diverted towards the many millions of people who had nothing to do with the attack (apart from suffering from the attackers’ lie that they are one of them), the real satire has been gradually unfolding. We’ve been subjected to passionate pontifications about the importance of the freedom of the press, pontifications that ring more than a little hollow when placed in their proper context. As is typical of those in power in desperate need of some good PR, leaders with a questionable commitment to human rights have used the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to assert commitments to free speech and a free press. Not only are our leaders engaging in such stunning cynicism, but prominent voices in the media (ironically) have also been keen to jump on Islam and assert the importance of a free press.

Take Douglas Murray for example. Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society and media spokesperson for the neoliberal far-right. Whilst he laments the state of the free press with regard to its collective failure in the UK to reprint the cartoons that supposedly led to the deaths of 12 individuals, he has not always been the greatest defender of a free press when it comes to confronting the danger of an over-powerful state. A free press when it comes to attacking those least likely to do us harm, versus that of a state that can exert its power over us at will.

Then there are the numerous leaders who announced that they were “Charlie Hebdo” on the streets of Paris. How hollow their words sounded when they are guilty of repressing the free press within their own states. And this hypocrisy didn’t just afflict those from countries in the Middle East and beyond. Indeed, no sooner had David Cameron announced to the world “je suis Charlie”, than he was back home announcing his (laughably idiotic) intentions to ensure that no-one can ever have a private conversation ever again.

A free press should only be defended, it appears, if it is sticking the knife into a minority group rather than those occupying the seats of power. Yes, this is the kind of free speech that must, apparently, be defended – the kind that punches down rather than punches up.

What we should be watching is not the many millions of Muslims throughout the world who merely wish to practice their religion in peace (no matter what we may feel about religion in general) but, as any good satirist would tell you, it’s the state. The powerful. We should be looking up, not looking down. For whilst the state wants us to focus on millions of people who have nothing to do with the atrocities supposedly carried out in their name, they will use this opportunity to remove the freedoms they claim bind us together as part of some notion of shared values. It happens time after time (even to those who are supposed to be watching the state closer than most). They preach solidarity with us, but the reality is that the state is often the enemy of the people and we should never allow their games of distraction to permit us to forget this.