NSA whistleblower Snowden a 'hero' - but not in the UK?

News by Doug Drinkwater

NSA and GCHQ whistleblower Edward Snowden and the film on his leaks, Citizenfour, were celebrated at an event in London last week, but questions remain whether the UK really got the message on privacy and government surveillance.

Snowden has been celebrated and slated in equal measure since his leaks on NSA and GCHQ surveillance programmes, first through The Guardian, in April 2013, but he won widespread praise at an F-Secure privacy party, hosted at the 44CON conference in London, last week.

The event was hosted in part to celebrate Snowden and in part Citizenfour, the film produced and directed by Laura Poitras and with cameos from Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. The firm, which was released in October last year, has since won a Bafta and an Oscar.

Lumunaries in attendance included F-Secure chief research officer (CRO) Mikko Hypponen, Big Brother Watch director Emma Carr as well as those closely involved with the making of the film and the release of the leaks. The Guardian investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill was one of the first to meet Snowden in Hong Kong and reported on his leaks, especially in relation to the activities of GCHQ, while privacy activist Michael Harris is director of Britdoc, the production company which backed the film.

F-Secure CEO Christian Fredrikson and Allen Scott, managing director of F-Secure in the UK, opened the presentation by saying they were ‘enthralled' about the success of the film, with Scott adding that it "had changed our view of the way we look at data and privacy.”

“Whatever your opinion of him is, if he's a villain or a hero, you've got to admit that what he did was extremely brave. Think about yourself, would you be able to do same?” asked Fredrikson, adding that this was testament that he, “obviously believes very strongly in what he does.”

MacAskill was one of the first reporters to interview Snowden on the disclosures and though admitting that there were times when he thought the former NSA contractor was a “fanatic, a crackpot” – especially when placing blanket over his head when on a telephone call – he said he was a ‘hero' and ‘principled' in what he did.

“For him, this was a constitutional issue,” said the reporter, adding that the “next task for me is to get Snowden out of Russia and preferably to somewhere in western Europe. That's what we should be working for.”

MacAskill, who dealt with some 60,000 documents from Snowden, added that his dealings with the GCHQ – the ire of much of Snowden's leaks – were amicable enough, with them simply “ordinary civil servants that don't think anything wrong with what they're doing, the intrusions and the invasion of privacy.” They've “no intention” of giving up the tools, he said.

“But there are reasons to be optimistic, there's going to be a debate after the election on the existing legislation which are ambiguous, unintelligible and will be rewritten.” He said Oliver Stone's portrayal of Snowden, in the Christmas movie 'Snowden', would stir the debate once more, and of the fugitive's long-term occupancy.

However, Harris said that while there has been much change post-Snowden around the globe, this is not the case in the UK.

“Two years later after Snowden has disclosed the revelations around the NSA and GCHQ surveillance and we've had an enormous global debate, we've had legislation passed in places like Austria and Brazil, and seen a fundamental shift in the public attitude, from a kind of interest in privacy to actually privacy being one of the human rights people are most talking about.”

However, he added that there's a “long way to go.” “It's arguable that literally nothing has changed in the UK; GCHQ surveillance has not changed at all, the law hasn't changed and if anything the three main parties have gotten even more draconian,” he said, citing attempts to push the 'Snooper's Charter' through Houses of Parliament.

“So we've got a battle on our hands so we've got to make sure public goes from mass surveillance to targeted surveillance, authorised by a judge. That's the big battle we've got to win.”

MacAskill added:  “To some extent what Mike Harris said is true, there has been change in Britain, but it doesn't feel like that….Even if there hasn't been debate in Britain, there have been debate elsewhere in world, particularly in Europe.”

He added, more positively, that the coalition work between Privacy International, F-Secure and others had helped, as had Google, Microsoft and other manufacturers in introducing end-to-end encryption. 

Hypponen, meanwhile, summarised that Snowden's impact will be felt for years to come saying that anyone writing essays decades from now will remember, “this person, Edward Snowden, who came forward and opened our eyes to what's happening, about how we moved our worlds to online, which means we are the first generation whose lives can really be monitored in all aspects, including where you are, who you communicate with, what communicate about, even basically what we think.”

Eerke Boiten, director of the Cyber Security Research Centre, said that the initial impact from the leaks was “very limited indeed” in the UK especially as far as newspapers “other than the Guardian” were concerned.

“They either mostly ignored the Snowden stories or emphasised the alleged risk to national security and called him a traitor. When in September 2013 a couple of academic colleagues and I published an open letter to GCHQ, arguing against tampering with security solutions, again only the Guardian showed an interest.”

Boiten pointed out in 2013 that UK was living in a “Snowden-free bubble”, with this especially relating to the fact that Snowden hadn't led to any changes in UK cyber-security strategy. “Meanwhile, in UK politics there were a few MPs of each major party who showed any worries, with the rest reassured by the ISC and the securocrats that all was well,” he told SCMagazineUK.com via email.

“For most of 2014, there wasn't much of a change in that picture. I think the tide has turned a bit now. Foreign secretary Phil Hammond arguing that it's time to move on is indicative that government feels under more pressure these days.”

Like MacAskill, Boiten said that privacy activists, as well as the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, had put more pressure on government, with David Cameron's perceived criticism of encryption adding further fuel to the fire.

There are now also more newspapers involved in the fight for privacy, and more pressures on EU-US Safe Harbor agreement with “increased awareness from Snowden that under FISA it is not possible to keep EU personal data held by US companies safe from the NSA”. This is currently being fought in the ECJ, with the judges apparently"quite on the ball" as far as US surveillance risks are concerned.

“I feel the debate has been very slow to start, but far from over” he said, adding that while Lib Dems and Greens have drawn clear conclusions from Snowden, the Conservatives are asking for even more mass surveillance, with Labour lacking a critical stance on the issue.

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