Big Brother must be kept in his place

It has been a bad year for Western intelligence agencies. Being front-page news every week for months at a stretch is not ideal when your business is secrecy. But, whatever the supposed threat to national security, the recent orgy of revelations is a healthy release of toxins.

Both the United States's National Security Agency (NSA) and the United Kingdom's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have overstepped the boundaries of justice and common sense.

The most recent revelation is perhaps the most shocking: the NSA has spent the past decade sabotaging and undermining the encryption infrastructure on which all private communication over the internet relies. In the same week, Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, revealed that the NSA and GCHQ have also cracked the codes that protect smartphones.

We know this only because Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the NSA, had the courage to leak hundreds of classified documents to the press. Armed with this evidence, the Guardian revealed in June that the NSA has been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans since April this year.

The NSA compelled Verizon, one of the country's largest telecommunications services, to hand over these records using a court order obtained from a secret federal court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa). The Act, originally passed in 1978, was amended in 2008 to grant broad powers to the US government's executive agencies (such as the NSA) to surveil anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism.

The NSA is not allowed to collect data on American citizens, or even anyone on American soil, but the documents leaked by Snowden prove otherwise. They detail how NSA agents broke privacy laws thousands of times over a two-year period.

On June 6, the Washington Post broke the news of an NSA programme code-named Prism. The programme aims to coerce the world's largest internet companies into handing over the private data of any users deemed suspicious by the NSA. The programme has already met and exceeded its original targets.

Then, on August 18, British police detained and questioned David Miranda, a Brazilian national, at Heathrow Airport. New terror laws allowed them to hold Miranda for nine hours without charging him. His crime? His relationship with Glenn Greenwald, one of the Guardian journalists behind the revelations about the NSA and GCHQ.

This blatant intimidation did not work. Last week Greenwald, with colleagues at both the Guardian and the New York Times, published an exposé of the NSA's reckless intervention in the net's encryption systems.

So, a quick recap: these agencies now have the power and the means to collect whatever data they see fit, including everything from phone records and emails to Facebook messages. All they need do is apply to their secret court for a secret order. Although rules exist to protect their own citizens, these are frequently ignored.

They can detain anyone they like without charge and without just cause. They can sabotage any technology that stands in their way, regardless of the collateral damage it may cause to millions of legitimate users.

When did the organs of democracy and freedom change places with the Gestapo?

Shaken by terror attacks on New York and London, the self-appointed guardians of the free world have unleashed their hounds. The time has come to pull on their chains.

Fisa, and Britain's terror laws, should be reviewed and amended, if not repealed. The NSA and GCHQ have proven that, given enough rope, the spies will hang us all.

But we must resist the urge to put any blame on technology. Technology is a tool; it has no morals or urges or biases. Were they able to do so, the NSA and GCHQ would shut down the entire internet for good. We must not let them undermine the greatest invention since the printing press.

The answer is not to roll back ­technology – the answer is to roll forward democratic participation. The Arab Spring, however muddy it has now become, used social media to mobilise millions of people around a just cause.

Let us use the internet to rally around our freedom to communicate in privacy. Let us tell our governments, loudly and often, that to sacrifice our freedoms for the sake of security is a terrible bargain. For that is a bargain born of fear, not sense, and if we accept it, then the terrorists will already have won.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Suspicious packages target Obama, Clintons

Both Democrats remain two of the most high-profile political figures in the US, which goes to the polls on November 6 in key midterm elections

New privacy app takes a page from NSA technology

Scrambl3, a new app on the market, creates the smartphone equivalent of a virtual private network to make messages invisible on the internet.

Study shows US data sweep harms press freedom

A study has found that surveillance efforts aimed at thwarting terrorist attacks have undermined press freedom - and broader democratic rights.

UK says spying program that may or may not exist is legal

The British government is being sued for monitoring activities exposed by Edward Snowden, but it maintains that it operates within the law.

Brazil not considering asylum for Snowden

After Edward Snowden's open letter, Brazil says it's not considering granting asylum to him as the country has not received a formal request.

Gamers spook world of spycraft

US and UK intelligence agents have been posing as Orcs and Elves to snare terror suspects online.

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday