What’s happened to Edward Snowden and his revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programme? As stories keep emerging from one of the largest leaks in US history, we learn more and more about the Americans’ ability to monitor communications, but seem less sure how to respond. Most people would acknowledge that the state does retain some right to monitor suspect activities. But this is a very different proposition from the population-wide mass surveillance suggested by the documents leaked by Snowden. Clearly the balance has tipped much too far in favour of default data gathering. So how do we move it back?
This is a complex discussion, and it’s not really being had in the UK right now. The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins has suggested an establishment conspiracy has kept the public from talking about this - it’s certainly true that the response here has not been on the level of that in other countries (not least in Brazil, where a national Internet redesign to avoid US surveillance is being considered).
But part of the problem here is not simply that people have been shielded from the discussion on surveillance, or that people don’t care. It is that people do not know what we are supposed to do about this. Who do we appeal to? What do we want?
This is where the European Union can come into its own. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but nowhere is protection of privacy given more credence than in Brussels and Berlin. A horror of Soviet-style surveillance of citizens runs deep in many European institutions and nation states, particularly those that had hands-on experience. The most powerful person in Europe, Angela Merkel, remember, was a citizen of Stasiland.
The European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (Libe), has set out to investigate claims of surveillance and examine what the EU can do about it. UK Labour MEP Claude Moraes has been charged with reporting on the Committee’s findings by the end of the year.
The parliament will be considerably aided by a 36-page briefing by independent surveillance researcher Caspar Bowden, who was helpfully mapped out the history of US and UK surveillance, and overlap with the European Union, all the way back to Alan Turing’s work with US spies in 1942.
Bowden comes up with several recommendations for Europe: the development of a “European cloud”, the revoking or renegotiation of mechanisms that allow US companies to gather data from European users, and, significantly in the case of the Snowden revelations, “systematic protection and incentives for whistleblowers”.
The European parliament investigation is welcome. But in reality, there is only a certain amount the parliament can actually achieve. The real power will, in the end, rest in the will of the governments of the respective European Union countries to act. Europe’s cyber strategy already states that “increased global connectivity should not be accompanied by censorship or mass surveillance”. But it’s time EU leaders acted on this.
That’s why Index on Censorship, along with dozens of other groups, including Amnesty, Reporters Without Borders and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as stars and activists such as Bianca Jagger, Stephen Fry and Cory Doctorow, is petitioning European leaders directly. The next European Council Summit takes place at the end of October. We want every European government head there to publicly take a stand against mass surveillance.
The European Union, founded in part as a democratic bulwark against the authoritarianism of the eastern bloc, has a chance to stand out in the world against surveillance and for the rights of free speech and privacy. In the coming decades, power will be defined by who controls information: Europe, as a powerful democratic force, should work to ensure that its own ordinary citizens and people around the world are not left impotent.
Sign the petition telling EU leaders to stop mass surveillance here.
Pádraig Reidy is senior writer at Index on Censorship.