Don't be evil
by Carl Miller
The Guardian today is running a red-hot scoop. A 41-slide PowerPoint presentation leaked from the US National Security Agency, famously the most secretive agency in the US intelligence community, details how a previously undisclosed programme – PRISM – has for the last five years allowed intelligence agencies to access a broad swathe of digital information, from Google chat to Skype calls, held by the web giants.
Whilst the PowerPoint slides are certainly bad enough to plausibly come from a US public agency, this story at the moment is heavily contested. Google has strenuously denied any backdoor access to the US government, whilst Apple says it has ‘never heard’ of PRISM. The Guardian meanwhile maintains that the source has been thoroughly verified, and you’d imagine that this must be, at least in their view, ironclad: the prospect of a court case trying to value the damage of such a prominent libel to Google’s reputation would cause any editor to triple-check the source.
Only four slides of 41 have so far been published, but if true, this disclosure is nothing short of seismic. This isn’t, however, surprising in the ways that many people would assume.
Firstly, it is no surprise that digital information is now an important, even dominant, source of information. The leaked slides show that the kind of digital intelligence that PRISM produced is now the richest vein of raw intelligence for the NSA and is prominent in the President’s briefings. Yet as I’ve pointed out previously (incidentally, with a former Director of GCHQ), changing ways in which we communicate mean that digital intelligence, especially on social media platforms – SOCMINT – will become an increasingly important part of the intelligence mix.
It isn't surprising that the US would share this information with intelligence allies, especially ones as close as the UK. The close intelligence-sharing relationship between the UK and US is no secret – it is often celebrated and networks like ECHELON have routinely collected telecommunications traffic in the UK (including from a base in North Yorkshire), on UK citizens, and passed some of intelligence from it back to the UK intelligence community.
Nor is there anything in this revelation to imply this was done unlawfully or unconstitutionally. The Director of National Intelligence quickly clarified the programme’s legal footing as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including Congressional oversight and court-ruled limitations and reviews. Indeed, America has a fairly strong and historic dislike of spying, at least on its own citizens – it was fairly late to the intelligence game for exactly this reason – and whilst it does not extend the same courtesy to aliens, it would be surprising if a programme of this size was carried out in total illegality.
The real and sensational revelation is that this transfer of data was allegedly on the basis of willing, cooperation from the internet giants - Google, Facebook, Hotmail, Yahoo, Apple - as voluntary ‘Special Sources’ for the NSA. These same internet companies have, both in public and in private championed the privacy of their users’ data and long and noisily championed a vision of a free internet altogether hostile to government involvement in the internet. They have consistently opposed a British attempt – the Communications Data Bill - to create a legal basis to be able to conduct information collections ironically similar to those revealed in the slides. Google, for instance, publishes regular transparency reports on attempts by public authorities across the world to remove content from its search index.
The fact that these very same companies were willing, if secret, partners in this endeavour, whilst mounting a vocal opposition to it, would be a gruesome hypocrisy. ‘You have to fight for your privacy or you will lose it’, Google’s Eric Schmidt insisted earlier this year. The stunning duplicity is, it seems, this is exactly what they have failed to do.
After a bruising political dogfight, the Communications Data Bill was dropped by Nick Clegg live on LBC. Yet after the brutal murder of Drummer Rigby in Woolwich last month, there are signs the Government is again returning to it. For better or for worse, the moral authority of these internet giants to speak in opposition to the Bill is now totally, and very publicly, undermined.