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

On board with the US air crews fighting Islamic State

During four days on board the US carrier taking part in the fight against Islamic State, progress appears to be slow and steady.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • Comment number 34.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    .President Obama, for whom I voted twice, seems to think that the fourth amendment of the U S Constitution prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure is dead, buried and forgotten. I hope that the US Supreme Court can resurrect it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    To the best of my recollection:

    'You no longer live in a democratic republic. The best you may do is retrieve it. I can't tell you I believe you'll succeed.'

    'I know a lot of you in this room don't really believe me. I believe, in time, you will.'

    Sen. Robert Byrd, 2004, JFK Library after detailing the unconstitutionality of the Patriot Act and AUMF.
    (NOT the subsequent NPR broadcast)

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    This issue is far from over. Had even the Amash amendement passed, it would only have been the beginning. The telecom industry provided the W Adm. all data without warrant, then congress provided retroactive immunity to the industry. Both public and private unlimited storage of data without probable cause must end, and the Patriot Act and Auth. for 'War on Terror' must be repealed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    No surprise that the House of Representatives voted not to stop the NSA gathering data on everybody. Via lobbying and campaign contributions, the politicians are all paid for by corporations and the rich. The people no longer count for anything other than being workers.

    At least the ACLU will give the courts a try. Perhaps the third branch of government will remember the Constitution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Most US gets away with Globally is from the phenomena of being the most media saturated Nation on Earth with the most ignorant population. Average person in US is totally absorbed with earning a living and spending it, a cultivated mindset which allow Govt to do Whatever, Whenever to Whomever with nary a concern for Ethics, Marals or even National Pride.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @27 USAperson
    "The phone data is gathered". Which is now easily circumvented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The phone data is gathered in total because persons of interest don't just deal with other foreign nationals. Same is true for the US version of the Mafia - just as with terrorists - friends & neighbors can be very surprised to find out someone they thought was an upstanding member of the community is actually a hit-man or Don. Sometimes even the family is surprised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Governments come and go but if anyone needs proof of the power of institutions we only have to look at Egypt. Institutions need a shake out once in awhile, just to keep em a little more honest. After all we are the customers and the electorate. Have they forgotten this? Do they really care? One way to create terrorists is to squeeze the little guy into a corner. Just my observations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Corporate corruption: A certain company has been pumping the water from below various towns in Michigan in order to bottle and sell it back to the people. Meanwhile the water table has fallen so low, the people have dry wells. This corruption is underwritten by legislators who are oblivious to peoples plight by way of greased palms "also called lobbyists". Part of the money machine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    @22:I think only the naive think this is about saving a "child or city from terror". If it was, pollies could save millions by paying for clean, safe drinking water or vaccinations or countless other things that would be more effective in saving lives at a fraction of the cost of implementing a mass surveillance program. Nope, this is about power. Men want it & they get it by making you afraid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Seems to me our elected officials are neutered speakers and that is all. The institutions are operating without real oversight and are free to trample the masses in order to protect their own corrupted self preservation at all costs. Although i respect Warren Buffett, he did get into the insurance industry so that he could have a cash cow. Now that same insurance industry dictates to the people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Only if we elect Simples

    All governments will strive to protect (the people & within reason the people's protectors), and even you and I might 'cross the line of the law' at need (to save a child or a city from terror)

    Only the naive will believe the dilemma of protection vs. surveillance soluble other than in peace, home and abroad, agreed equal partnership, villains high & dry

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @3 "Even starry-eyed Obama supporters are feeling disquiet about his regime's intruson....."

    Are there any left? This fellow was exposed as a wolf in sheep's clothing long, long ago. He's Bush all over again, but without Bush's naivety & personal weakness. Bush was the puppet manipulated by vested interests. Obama is the puppet-master, conning the whole world that he was something different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Major media are part of the problem-they support gov policy like Soviet media did, unquestioningly. Does that mean all leaks to the NYT/WP/NPR mean you're aiding the enemy? Seems the real enemy is the American people. So much for Obama supporting whistleblowers, bring back Dubya, he treated them better. Watch out America you're governement is watching you. Will the people rise up? Hope so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Mark, the US population has one very easy way to stop all this. They're called elections. Now that everything is out in the open & on the public record, people can make up there own minds if they want to live in a surveillance state. Vote out those who support it & vote in those who don't (or vice versa). Similarly with those companies complicit. Simples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Idra @16
    "When the people fear the government"

    Or the law
    Or God, manifest in reason and shareable morality
    Will not Good King's law be preferred to that of Braggart Baron?

    Should not confuse liberty with absence of law. Our liberty rests on each other, fullest in that context as equals, enduringly empowered 'to fight another day' on nature of the law that frames and protects our lives together

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Just topple down Statute of Liberty and you'll be fine, you do not deserve to have it anyways, Uncle Sam

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    “When the people fear the government there is tyranny, when the government fears the people there is liberty.”

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I don't have a problem with the NSA's program. I just want to make sure that Brits who visit America are detained, fingerprinted, frisked and questioned, much like Israel does with Arab visitors. As demonstrated by the half-Brit Bradley Manning, Britain is perhaps our biggest security threat on the planet and we should treat them accordingly.


Page 5 of 6



  • Kim Jong-ilKorean kidnap

    The film stars abducted by North Korea and forced to make movies

  • TabletFeeling flat

    Are tablets losing their appeal?

  • scarlett Johansson7 days quiz

    Did someone try to impersonate Scarlett on the red carpet?

  • Woman reading on subwayCover shots Watch

    The disappearing books of the New York city subway

  • llamasLlama drama

    Two unlikely fugitives go on the run in Arizona

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.