Outrage is not enough for US anti-surveillance campaign

Person using a phone The NSA collects records of every US phone call made and received

The defeat of an attempt in the US Congress to stop the widespread collection of phone data by the US National Security Agency (NSA) is a serious reverse for those who wanted to rein in American surveillance, and it is being billed by many in Washington DC as a victory for the Obama administration.

It also prompts the question that if this proposal was defeated, despite being tabled while public unease over the revelations by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden is still running high, has his campaign to halt this blanket monitoring of communications already been thwarted?

Those who supported the proposal by congressmen Justin Amash and John Conyers to halt the collection of phone metadata - the details of numbers called and times of calls rather than their content - argue that they can take heart at the small margin of their defeat by 217 to 205 votes in the House of Representatives.

Furthermore, the American Civil Liberties Union is bringing legal action against the US government that many predict will end up testing the legality of these blanket collection programmes in front of the US Supreme Court.

It is clear then that this battle is not over, and of course it is quite possible that Mr Snowden, once he escapes his limbo in Moscow airport's transit lounge, could add further fuel to the fire with new revelations. It is now though apparent how battle lines have been drawn and that those who want the powers of the NSA trimmed have limited options.

Ecuadorian embassy, Verizon wi-fi, Snowden poster, woman on a phone. GCHQ satellites

The companies that have co-operated so fully with the NSA, for example, appear to have faced little public backlash or shareholder pressure to alter their policies.

Apple, as its last quarterly results showed, is doing very nicely, and if Microsoft recently took a tumble on the markets, nobody is connecting that with its readiness to share customer information with the US government.

Most customers for iPhones, Yahoo e-mail accounts, or Verizon cell phone contracts have not boycotted the companies. Refusing to agree to license agreements would in any case simply result in them being unable to use the goodies or services that they are after.

People are still ticking the "I agree" box. The harvesting of vast amounts of data for commercial as well as national security purposes can therefore go on - unless of course the legal system produces a judgement that stops it.

As for the foreign governments who have expressed outrage or dismay about Mr Snowden's disclosures, their options too are distinctly limited. It has been apparent since the start of this that US lawmakers, in debates such as Wednesday's, are only really interested in protecting the rights of American citizens.

We have been here before - for example when the existence of the Echelon programme was revealed in the late 1990s. Although there has been some debate about what the codename actually stood for, my understanding has always been that it was the computerized system that trawled communications for "selectors" such as phone numbers or names.

At the time, the Echelon revelations prompted a European parliamentary committee of inquiry and a good deal of debate about how Britain's GCHQ was helping to spy on friendly neighbouring countries in order to maintain its signal intelligence partnership with the NSA.

Yet this debate changed very little - indeed it took place shortly before 9/11 prompted the expansion of these very capabilities.

Today the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee is investigating the Snowden disclosures including the existence of Tempora, GCHQ's program for capturing vast amounts of communications from the fibre optic trunks entering and leaving the UK.

However the early word from those inside the committee, is that they do not consider there has been any significant breach of the laws regulating the interception of communications or governance of the intelligence services.

The desire to re-visit those laws and examine whether they give sufficient protection to the rights of the average citizen appears to be significantly less in the UK than it is in the US.

As if to underline the limits on the ability of those outside the US to challenge these activities, Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner on Thursday threw out an attempt to stop the European arm of Facebook (which has its HQ in the Republic) transferring customer information to the NSA. Explaining its decision, the commission said US compliance with EU rules, "ticks a box under our jurisdiction".

Thus the different strands of this, from the British debate, to the continuing corporate harvesting of customer accounts, to the failure of those who wanted to check the NSA on Wednesday night in Congress all ultimately bring us back to the same place: US legal challenges and the likelihood that these issues will ultimately be argued in front of the Supreme Court.

There it will be debated in terms of legal principle rather than popular feeling - large sections of the public, as well as their elected representatives having already apparently resolved to allow blanket surveillance to continue.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It's creepy& disturbing . Also dangerous depending upon how info collected is used & who's in charge.But seriously, how else would info be gathered? And you know it's globally practised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I am astounded on a daily basis by the capacity for viciousness by our own institutions.
    Any terrorist org. or lone wolf who gets caught by means of surveillance, deserves it.
    The average guy is to be scrutinized by corrupt minded authority, be it insurance, bank, corporate, political, police or whatever controls us. Either way we are disadvantaged, fight and go to jail, do nothing and suffer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    There has been little backlash against companies subject to gag orders covering the secret orders to violate our rights issued by a shadowy government agency that has repeatedly lied to congress about its operations and which is using secret interpretations of the law issued by secret courts?

    That's probably because we have a better understanding of who is responsible than you. Wait til we vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    As the old cliche goes, mIlitary intelligence is an oxymoron. It's true!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I cannot believe anyone can believe the government listening to hundreds of millions of phone calls in the possibility of stopping a terrorist attack is a good trade,the bloated intrusive government is rapidly getting like the EUSSR.Hopefully the people will start voting the socialist nanny state lovers from office.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    My biggest worry is government incompetence. Despite the vast "intelligence" (if we can use that word in ths context) bureaucracies, the govt was unable to prevent 9/11, Benghazi, the Boston bombs... The underpant bomber's and Time Square attack plots were foiled only because of terrorist incompetence.

    The regime's vast snooping powers are not delivering good enough results.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Slowly, but surely and steadily - freedom is not becoming a right...it is becoming a priviledge bestowed upon us by elected and unelected entrenched bureaucrats who are VERY difficult to hold accountable (even by the ballot box).

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    There doesn't exist any free world. People in power always want to keep ordinary people in control. Goverments are the same there is only one difference, in dictatorships they tell you that we are keeping an eye on you but in so called democracies they do the same while lying about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Curt Carpenter @5

    An unholy alliance is growing, between those who think they might have something too good to hide, and those who know they have something too bad

    While the nuclear arms race tripped the USSR before the US could stumble, looks like the cyber race could trip all but the most powerful into preference for equal partnership as our only safeguard

    What a way to discover democracy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    There's an important difference between seeking to _stop_ NSA surveillance and seeking to _enhance_ the checks on potential NSA abuses resulting from it.

    "Secret Courts" are not in keeping with basic American values (I hope) -- and "Congressional Oversight" of just about anything is a joke given our current congress.

    We need new ways to keep a public eye on this hugely-bloated agency.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    There's another shoe to drop. Our representatives are well aware that their constituents are uneasy about these surveillance programs,but they voted to continue them nonetheless, indicating that they believe the continuation of those programs are are in their constituents' best interests.

    Ok, that's how our government is supposed to work, but they have some explaining to do when they get home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Dissidents like Snowden are perhaps the most effective counter-balance to big government snooping.

    Even starry-eyed Obama supporters are feeling disquiet about his regime's intruson on the privacy of both US and non-US citizens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    We all make sacrifices of our personal liberty to be a member of a civilized society. If we begin to believe that no sacrifice is necessary, that we owe no obligation to our government or our fellow citizens that will mark the beginning or our decent into anarchy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Unfortunately, when attempting to balance liberty and security, the human brain is prone to making a wild miscalculation on terror. Here's why---> "This is Your Brain on Terrorism" http://bit.ly/162DtWE


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