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Experts: NSA Internet surveillance program still raising concerns

20:11 | 03.07.2015 | Analytic


3 July 2015. PenzaNews. The US National Security Agency (NSA) has been conducting surveillance of top-of-the-line businessmen and politicians in France and Germany for over ten years, alleges WikiLeaks that published series of new documents on June 29 and July 1, 2015.

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The files reveal that the American intelligence services chose several high-ranking persons as the targets of their telephone eavesdropping system, and created a database of intercepted information of economic and political value. Among other things, according to the documents, the US, and, in certain cases, other members of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance that also includes the Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, gained access to information on large-scale French contracts for over $200 million, and the contents of communications between the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her personal assistant.

The secret documents caused an agitation in the European political society: the French President Francois Hollande called the situation unacceptable, and the German Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier summoned the US Ambassador John Emerson for immediate talks.

The journalists also took notice of the recent WikiLeaks releases. One of them, Simon Shuster of Time magazine, compared the events of the recent weeks with the 2013 scandal over the wiretapping of Angela Merkel’s phone calls. The German prosecutor’s office dropped the investigation of the case in June 2015, he reminds.

“As Germany’s experience suggests, no real rupture in relations comes out of these scandals, at least in part because the Europeans rely on the US not only for trade but security and the sharing of intelligence,” he writes.

Moreover, the published documents once brought the public attention towards the issue of mass Internet surveillance that went viral after a former US intelligence services employee Edward Snowden published the first batch of top-secret files in June 2013.

In a Q&A video session with Amnesty International held in early June, he recalled how the leaders of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance and several other countries introduced the indiscriminate surveillance measures under the guise of terrorism protection measures, doing all they could to avoid scrutiny.

“Courts have ruled [the US program] unlawful. They have said that from the very first day it was against the law, it was a violation of basic constitutional rights. The White House did a classified investigation of it, and they found that it never stopped a single terrorist attack,” stressed the former security agency employee whose story was depicted in the documentary film “Citizenfour.”

According to Anton Nordenfur, party organizer for the Pirate Party of Sweden, the current situation is further complicated by the fact that the Washington officials may have learned a lot from the Snowden’s case.

“I think it is more likely that the US gets more professional and more efficient in the spying programs, and simply being harder on whistleblowers, and being more careful about what it’s making that is being leaked,” he said in an interview to PenzaNews agency. He also added that Edward Snowden, who currently resides in Russia, risked becoming a prisoner of Guantanamo Bay or even losing his life.

He also suggested that the recent release by WikiLeaks would only have a short-term effect.

“But I also think that it will lead to the US continuing to spy on chiefs of states, just in different ways and more effective ways in which they won’t be discovered in the same way. […] Even if there was outcry about stopping the program, and even if they were to come out and say they would completely cease all programs, I’m entirely pessimistic about the idea that they would actually cease them,” the speaker noted.

According to Anton Nordenfur, the only thing that was damaged by the release of the documents describing the law-breaking activities of the American intelligence agencies that targeted their own allies was the public image of the US authorities. The reason behind it, he said, was that millions of people all over the world began to see the online privacy issue in a different light, as the security of information is important, for both the regular citizens who want their private data safe and politicians and businesses who seek to protect their professional and trade secrets.

“In a [recent] interview with the Swedish Prime Minister, he talked about how he didn’t have any faith in talking over phone anymore. And I think, unfortunately, that’s a good thing, because that means there are faith to more leaks in the future,” the member of the Pirate Party of Sweden stated.

At the same time, Peter Swire, professor of Law and Ethics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, privacy expert under Bill Clinton, said that Edward Snowden’s decision to publish the classified documents was a very influential event.

“For me, there are positive consequences of the Snowden revelations, such as starting this important debate on privacy. There were also negative consequences, such as revealing to North Korea and other totalitarian regimes some of the capabilities of the US intelligence services, and some of the revelations were so detailed that they tipped off dangerous nations to change their behavior,” he stressed, noting that the actions of the former security service employee constitute a criminal action.

However, he noted that these releases provoked the debate and pushed for the review of the American bulk data collection program.

“I was a member of President Obama’s review group on intelligence and communication technologies. He created a five-person group to review the NSA program in August 2013, and I was of the five people from it. […] Our review group recommended additional pro-privacy protection, especially concerning Section 702,” Peter Swire recalled, noting that the well-known PRISM system that went operational in 2007 is working under FISA Section 702 authority.

He also pointed out that one of the most important elements that came after the leaks was the USA Freedom Act, a law enacted on June 3, 2015, with the aim to impose limits on the bulk collection and retention of phone data.

“The USA Freedom Act was the biggest pro-privacy intelligence reform in 40 years. It also was the first major pro-privacy legislation since 9/11,” Peter Swire stressed.

Alan Butler, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, expressed a similar point of view, calling it “a landmark piece of legislation.”

“We believe it is a really significant step in the right direction. It was right for the Congress to pass it and for the President to sign it,” he said.

According to the rights activist, additional oversight and transparency requirements imposed by the new law would allow to rein in the practice of authorizing surveillance in secret without a public oversight. However, the protection of people in other countries is an issue that is yet to be resolved in the future.

“It is certainly a complicated policy issue. I think that as similar organizations are pushing for broader rights for US persons as well as non-US persons, and the President did release a speech in 2014 where he pledged to revive those rights,” the expert reminded, adding that the rights organizations are continuing to working in this direction.

However, Joshua Franco, advisor on technology and human rights for Amnesty International, stressed that he does not see the USA Freedom Act as a complete US mass surveillance reform.

“There is a lot more to be done. A lot of surveillance carried out in the US is done under other legal authorities, and probably there is a lot going on that we do not necessarily know about. So I think it is a symbolic and important political victory, but it shows that we have a lot more to discuss,” the expert said.

He added that the information provided by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers has changed the attitude of the people and the society towards the issue, and also gave the rights activists an opportunity to challenge the bulk online communications interception programs in courts. Unfortunately, changes in the opposite direction still show up all over the world.

“The UK government promising at least to expand surveillance powers, and also officials in the US and the UK talking about encryption as a threat to counter-terrorism and a threat to law enforcement, all of which could harm online privacy rights and other human rights. And, of course, the French government itself is also adopting a mass surveillance law which we’ve criticized and we think it’s really problematic from the human rights point of view,” the Amnesty International representative said.

Because of that, he thinks, the international community must lobby the governments to gain legal protections of their private data against mass surveillance, and put pressure on the corporations that control access to information and design the technologies for the end users.

As the World Wide Web is not bound by the country borders, an intelligence agency of one country intercepting online communications automatically threatens the rights of all Internet users, Joshua Franco reminded.

In the meanwhile, he said, more and more countries seek to obtain the technologies to gain a maximum amount of data about their citizens as we go.

In his turn, Richard Hill, president of the Switzerland Association for Proper Internet Guidance, suggested that the wiretapping scandal in France would most likely lead to a series of behind-the-scenes talks.

“For example, I think, and so do other people, what happened in the Merkel story is that in exchange for dropping [the case], the US is probably sharing more information with Germany than they did before. So I think the countries that are targets of this are trying to enter the club of Five Eyes rather than trying to shut it down,” the rights activist suggested.

From his point of view, the actions of the American intelligence services seem to show a continuation of the so-called Wolfowitz policy, named after Paul Wolfowitz, former US Deputy Secretary of Defense, who had formulated it in early 90s.

“Under [this strategy], the United States after the Cold War would no longer allow any other state to achieve equivalence. The United States is attempting to prevent any other state from acquiring the comparable level of military and political power to itself. And so it was pursuing a policy to ensure that no other state achieves that power, and one methods they do that, of course, is surveillance,” explained the president of the Association for Proper Internet Governance.

He noted that the best way to combat the mass surveillance program would be not through such scandals, but through continued and constant pressure from the public and the media against the politicians and the intelligence agencies that promote their interests under the guise of fighting terrorists.

“The idea that we would reduce those criminal attacks by mass surveillance is just stupid. The analogy I always use is: do you think that we would have fewer bank robberies if we had mass surveillance? Of course not. And why do you think that we could reduce these isolated attacks through mass surveillance? You cannot. So the rationale given for doing that is completely silly, and I think it’s important to point that out,” Richard Hill stressed.

Arjen Kamphuis, co-founder and chief technology officer of Gendo.ch, IT expert, also expressed the belief that the mass surveillance program is in no way related to the counter-terrorism activities, just like the National Security Agency per se.

“That’s the FBI’s job (and sometimes the CIA, although they are usually the ones funding, arming, training and directing the Terrorists – like in Afghanistan 1978-1999). After the Cold War, the NSA’s job is industrial espionage and political subversion,” he explained.

Right now, the intelligence agencies of the United Kingdom and the United States operate outside any laws, with no public official even trying to rein them in, Arjen Kamphuis said.

“I have worked with whistleblowers from intelligence agencies since 2007 and with WikiLeaks since 2008. […] Those agencies know everything about the personal life of those politicians and can ‘leak’ just enough of that info to destroy any political career instantly,” the expert stressed.

The US authorities have no qualms about using force whenever they see fit, even against those states that cooperate with the White House, he added.

“There are no allies, there is the US and there are smaller countries that feel they have no option but to smile to the crocodile and hope they won't get eaten this week. France and Germany, as bigger nations, do resist somewhat but ultimately dare not to poke the monster too much,” Arjen Kamphuis said.

Even though two years had passed since the first Snowden revelations, the Berlin officials did not take any actual steps, he said.

The analyst also pointed out that the public finally focused its attention on the activities of the US intelligence agencies 15-20 years latter than they should have had, even though the warning signs had been appearing in the media as early as in late 90s.

“[Edward Snowden] letting over seven billion people know their human right to privacy was being violated every second of every day by a nation that wages undeclared wars and mass killings in two dozen countries? I’d say that was justified,” the co-founder and chief technology officer of Gendo.ch concluded.

He suggested that the current US policy resembles that of the USSR on the verge of breakup and the United States may collapse in 5-20 years.

“Just like the Soviet Union in its last days, the US will behave unpredictably as it joins the graveyard of empires. Better to stand at a safe distance as the process unfolds,” Arjen Kamphuis remarked.

He also highlighted the fact that most countries heavily rely on American technologies, particularly in computing and IT industries, and called for the world powers to create and develop their own solutions.

“Countries like France and Germany should actually work with countries like Russia, Brazil, India and perhaps even China and Iran to create technological alternatives they can all independently use without have to trust each other they way they have to trust the US now. Trusting a single powerful state clearly is not working. We need a multipolar world and decentralized technologies that have transparent inner workings so no abuse is possible. Such technologies also need to be the default in education so they become the norm instead of the exception. Such a policy would save all these countries 1-2% of their GNP currently spent on US tech that would now be invested in local technology development, new start-ups and skilled workers,” the expert concluded.

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