Snowden leaks are a gift to liberty, not terrorists

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The head of MI5, Andrew Parker, has been quoted in a number of newspapers today saying that the Guardian‘s NSA and GCHQ leaks caused ‘the greatest damage to Western security in history’ and amounted to a ‘guide book’ for ‘thousands’ of terrorists.

Mr Parker said: ‘What we know about the terrorists, and the detail of the capabilities we use against them, together represent our margin of advantage. That margin gives us the prospect of being able to detect their plots and stop them.”

Speaking on the Guardian‘s leaks, he said: ‘It causes enormous damage. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will. Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm.”

What Mr Parker failed to mention however, is that the issue of over-reaching national surveillance is not a new one. In 2005, the New York Times reported that President Bush had secretly authorised his National Security Agency – the US counterpart to GCHQ – to eavesdrop on American citizens without the court-ordered authorisation ordinarily required for domestic spying.

This came as a shift in the NSA’s usual practices, whose previous objective was to monitor foreign communications, and provided the first evidence that the American government may have crossed constitutional limits in their surveillance techniques. The scandal was not that the US was spying on its citizens – this had been common knowledge long before – but rather that they were doing it without the agreed authorisation.

The Guardian‘s investigation in 2013 revealed that the PRISM along with Tempora – a clandestine surveillance program run by GCHQ – allowed agencies to harvest, store and analyse data about millions of phone-calls, emails and search engine inquiries. A leaked report uncovered in the same investigation said GCHQ had the ability to collect and store more 39 billion separate pieces of information during a single day.

The same report also claimed that the UK and the US had exchanged massive amounts of information on their own citizens and were working together to share data. This was no longer about tracking just high-risk terror suspects, but the population at large.

This breach of ordinary people’s privacy was put in place without any kind of mandate to do so. No political party in the UK or the US has ever included such measures in a manifesto and every step of this Orwellian surveillance policy was designed to be kept away from public knowledge. The public’s revulsion since the leaks were published pays testament to the questionable nature of the approach.

Mr Parker’s attempts to quell the debate between the importance civil liberties and the need for the kind of programs his organisation operates is disingenuous at best. His speech was clearly designed to be fear-mongering and to cover the tracks of GCHQ who have far surpassed the remit of protecting national security and entered into the dangerous realms of encroaching on ordinary citizen’s rights to privacy.

Most people would agree that some surveillance is a good thing. Most people would also say that they feel safer knowing that the Government does what it can to track high-risk individuals or dangerous groups. It has been common knowledge for many years that there are procedures in place to do just that and it is unlikely that any would-be terrorist would be ignorant to that fact.

Whether you agree with the Guardian‘s coverage or not, it has allowed us all to have a national debate on where liberty ends and the need for national security begins. We all need to decide just how much we are willing to give up in the name of ‘safety’.

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist behind the leaks, spoke to Kirsty Wark on Newsnight. View the video below:

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