The Edward Snowden NSA Revelations helped bring the issue of national security overreach and corruption to the forefront in 2013. Unfortunately, the Ukraine Crisis pushed a much-needed conversation on limiting the powers of America’s national security apparatus to the backburner. Since the rise of the Islamic State as the most pressing regional security threat in the Middle East and a top global security threat, the USA Patriot Act of 2001 has been tweaked by the USA Freedom Act of 2015. Reigning in the American national security apparatus has all but disappeared from the public agenda.
Although there was plenty of public outrage over revelations of US efforts to spy on Europeans, European leaders and national security officials have since reaffirmed their cooperation with the US national security apparatus due to fears of rising terrorist threats and Russian hostility. The UK’s “Investigatory Powers Bill” makes the USA Patriot Act look like it respects the freedoms all-patriotic Americans would die to defend. Instead of confronting the past and present wrongs of their own national security apparatus by addressing the need to balance national security with civil liberties, British lawmakers are essentially trying to make those wrongs retroactively legal.
Great Britain may be famous for its use of surveillance, but this proposed law takes that surveillance to a whole new level while reinforcing the dangerous precedent France has already set in the wake of the Charlie Hobdo Shootings. Sadly, the new proposal is actually a watered-version of two much more intrusive proposals. This revision includes a few legal, not necessarily technical, limitations on what data can be accessed and a revised oversight panel of justices, but it is essentially a rehashed version “probable cause” and the US unaccountable FISA Courts.
Meanwhile, the Investigatory Powers Bill would also require companies to help government official essentially hack the hardware of users and decrypt any encrypted data they have encrypted, thus defeating the purpose of using encryptions. If the British were talking about the Russian government, their position would likely be reversed. After all, cyber security threats from criminals, terrorists, and countries benefit from such security holes. There is no balance on the internet when it comes to regulation and freedom, which means the internet is unpoliced and lacks a “constitutional” structure to provide for the rights of individuals, businesses, governments, and other organizations, but this approach is the opposite of balance.
Furthermore, UK Home Secretary Theresa May has compared the collection of internet data to the "modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill." Although a correct analogy, the itemized version of one’s internet activities contains far more useful information than a phone bill. It is more like the police following someone around for a year. That said, limiting data collection to just the websites, not the webpages, visited by users suggests little information is being gathered. The data being gathered is, however, what the NSA calls “meta-data” and this “meta-data” is far more useful to security experts than what specific content someone is viewing.
Knowing what kind of content someone is viewing online gives far more insight into the personality, lifestyle, and behavior of someone than sifting through massive amount of personal data. Content cannot be analyzed en mass unless it is broken down to data points, i.e. meta-data. With meta-data in hand, an individual can be modeled then specific content can be lawfully acquired under probable cause in order to finish the human model. Another way to say it is that Britain wants too profile all of its web users, which has vast racial, ethic, and socioeconomic implications.
Unfortunately, not only are profiling methodologies useful for national security purposes, they are particularly useful when it comes to political and economy issues. The Investigatory Powers Bill may include penalties for abusing the system, but weak oversight and the secretive nature of security organizations ensures no one will ever be caught or prosecuted for wrongdoings. This has, of course, been the problem with the NSA and CIA. More importantly, Investigatory Powers Bill does not address the hardliner mentality that leads to abuses. It only frees hardliners to abuse their power as national security officials.
Organizations like MI5, GCHQ, NSA, and CIA are tasked with ensuring national security interests through the gathering and securing of information. Unfortunately, the need for secrecy makes these organizations a magnet for individuals who view national security as a national interest that must be pursued by any means necessary. Although the spokespersons of these organizations have learned over the last few years to express a need to balance national security with civil liberties, such as privacy rights, hardliners view rights more as privileges to be waived whenever national security interests are at stake.
Under this mode of thinking, any potential threat to national security is a valid reason to ignore someone's civil liberties. Under such a mindset, the US Constitution and the British Acts of Parliament have value, because they provide structure to society, i.e. people adhere to the Law when they feel it protects their rights and their lives. On the other hand, an individual sharing such a view does not necessarily see the broader value of the principles behind a constitution, thus they believe their conduct outside of their own national borders does not have to adhere to the values set forth in the US Constitution or the British Human Rights Act of 1998.
Consequently, the real challenge is suppressing the hardliner influence in our super secret spy organizations. Aside from seeking legal justification for completely ignoring the human and civil rights of anyone they suspect to be a threat, hardliners do not seem to be answerable to political leadership or the People they purportedly serve. The best option at this point for wrangling our spies is to create official private and public channels for insiders to anonymously, securely, and responsibly submit material for review. Unfortunately, whistleblowers may be the only means of stopping the larger problem of the world’s security apparatuses, but we are prosecuting them instead of helping them leak information in a more responsible manner.
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