Radical political analysis, commentary and discussion in Wales
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After the Snowden leaks: opposing internet surveillance

Since early June 2013, the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden have changed our understanding of online communication. The leaks, published in the Guardian and a few other newspapers, have provided evidence of mass surveillance of our social media uses; interception and monitoring of most online and phone communication; state-sponsored hacking into telecommunications services; and the compromising of internet infrastructure. Moreover, the leaks have documented how security agencies - including those in the UK - have operated with hardly any oversight and often in breach of the law. Organisations like the Open Rights Group (ORG) have been campaigning against Internet surveillance. On Thursday 12th December, members of the Group spoke in Cardiff about surveillance practices and how to stop them.

Currently ORG and two other privacy groups are taking the UK government to the European Court of Human Rights. The group alleges the government acted illegally by breaching the privacy of millions of British and EU citizens, and that it broke Article 8 of the European Human Rights Act. Daniel Carey, solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, reported on the legal challenge and its potential outcomes. Jim Killock, ORG Executive Director, discussed the broader context of digital surveillance and explained what each of us can do to challenge mass surveillance in the UK.

Even though many internet activists and scholars had already foreseen a lot of what Snowden revealed and what journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras published over the past few months, the leaks have provided detailed proof of comprehensive surveillance and spy programmes that target all internet users (rather than just 'terrorists') and encompass even the sabotage of security tools and infrastructure. If anything, they have made it impossible for governments as well as every-day Facebook users to pretend that such extreme interventions and blanket surveillance do not occur in democratic states and by trendy new-economy companies (remember Google's motto: 'Don't Be Evil').

Beyond detailed information about surveillance practices, the revelations also tell us something about broader trends in online communication, state security, and journalism. As for internet communication, they remind us once more of the challenges to (or, potentially, the end of) the free borderless cyberspace. Similar to the increasingly wide-spread filtering and blocking of content, surveillance points to fundamental restrictions of free online communication by governments and state institutions. Further, the leaks highlight the problematic role of internet companies like Google and Facebook that are at the centre of programmes such as PRISM and work closely with state authorities. They show us the vulnerability of our daily communication practices which are increasingly dependent on services provided by these companies.

Blanket surveillance changes the relation between state and society as it undermines critical debate and dissident voices. State activity, on the other hand, increasingly takes place in secret and democratic control of security agencies is virtually non-existent. The justifications of state surveillance, predictably, use the 'terrorism' terminology ("we need to do this to catch the terrorists"), but even investigative journalism about the surveillance programmes is now seen as 'terrorist' activity. When Guardian collaborator David Miranda was held at Heathrow airport for 9 hours in relation to the leaks, this was officially done under anti-terrorism legislation. And the Guardian itself has been accused by the government as well as other media organisations of 'helping the terrorists'. The raid by members of the security agencies of the Guardian offices back in summer and the destruction of Guardian computers that supposedly contained the Snowden files were just some of the worrying occurrences of the past months that seriously put press freedom in this country into question.

Opposition against state surveillance has taken different forms. Many people have started to use anonymization tools such as Tor, have become interested in encryption tools such as PGP, or have started to use non-profit activist-based internet services such as and Street protests have started as part of the campaign Stop Watching Us. A global petition, supported by the leading digital rights organisations worldwide, is currently collecting signatures to demand an end to mass surveillance. And organisations such as the Open Rights Group are campaigning at the national level and putting pressure on the UK government.

A Cardiff chapter of the Open Rights Group is currently forming and will meet again in January. Further events and meetings will be announced here.