Big Brother IS watching you!


There has been mounting European disquiet over the US's PRISM snooping campaign and whether it has affected citizens on this side of the Atlantic. Members of the European Parliament are concerned that the US has overstepped the mark with its systematic cyber snooping campaign.

Tonio Borg, the European commissioner for consumer policy, told an emergency debate on PRISM that the Commission would seek clarification from the US about the extent of their monitoring of European citizens.

‘The Commission is asking for clear commitments from the US to respect the fundamental rights of EU citizens to data protection and to access to judicial redress in the same way as it is afforded to US residents,’ he said.

A number of European politicians, including German leader Angela Merkel, have promised to raise the issue with US President Obama, when he heads to Europe next week for a G8 meeting.

The revelations about the extent of US snooping on internet communications first emerged late last week. The whistleblower broke cover, revealing himself as Edward Snowden, a former IT contractor for the NSA.

The British connection

According to these leaked documents about the US National Security Agency (NSA), officials at the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) spy centre received 197 intelligence reports from the PRISM system in the past year.

But William Hague, the foreign secretary, told Parliament that GCHQ and the British intelligence agencies operated within the rule of law.

‘To intercept the content of any individual’s communications in the UK requires a warrant signed personally by me, the home secretary, or by another secretary of state,’ said Hague. ‘This is no casual process. Every decision is based on extensive legal and policy advice. Warrants are legally required to be necessary, proportionate and carefully targeted, and we judge them on that basis.’

Meanwhile, privacy campaigning group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called on international users to boycott internet firms that co-operated with the NSA spying programme. Firms such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft have been implicated in the PRISM scandal, although all have denied knowledge of the programme.

A touch of conscience

Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all asked the US Government to allow them to disclose the security requests they receive for handing over user data.

The move comes after recent reports claimed that US authorities had direct access to the servers of nine major US tech firms, including Google and Apple. However, Google have publicly stated that the claims were untrue, but added that nondisclosure rules of such requests have ‘fuelled that speculation’.

David Drummond, Chief Legal Officer of Google, has written to the US Attorney General seeking permission to publish ‘aggregate numbers of national security requests, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) disclosures’.

‘Google's numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide,’ he said in the letter.

Meanwhile, Microsoft said that greater transparency on the requests ‘would help the community understand and debate these important issues' and Ted Ullyot, from Facebook's general counsel, said the social networking leader wants to provide ‘a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond’.

Extra pressure

Although the US Government has admitted to the practice of snooping and is coming under increasing pressure from many different quarters to end the practice, it has, so far, refused to cease the practice.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit, challenging the legality of the programme and separately a coalition of more than 80 rights groups and internet companies have launched a website, StopWatchingUs, which has called on Congress to launch a full investigation. The site is backed by the World Wide Web Foundation, a group founded by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, and BCS fellow.

The backdrop

The surveillance programme, known as Prism, recently came to light after a series of leaks by former NSA employee, Edward Snowden. The documents, leaked to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, claimed that the US had a vast surveillance network with much less oversight than was previously thought. Mr Snowden told the Guardian that operatives had the power to tap into anyone's emails at any time.

‘We can plant bugs in machines. Once you go on the network, I can identify your machine. You will never be safe, whatever protections you put in place,’ he was quoted as saying by the Guardian.

US officials have so far defended the programme, saying it is authorised under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The Obama administration is currently investigating whether the disclosures by former CIA worker Edward Snowden were a criminal offence.

Mr Snowden's employer, defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, stated that it had fired the 29-year-old infrastructure analyst for violating its ethics code.