Is Britain playing “follow the leader” when it comes to legislating about surveillance? Edward Snowden thinks so. Concern has been expressed that a new bill winding its way through the UK parliament this week may increase government intrusion in the UK much the same way as a bill did in the US back in 2007. The speed with which it is travelling through the legislative body is also worrisome to many and unprecedented to others.
In an interview lasting seven hours in a Moscow hotel with the Guardian, Edward Snowden expressed such dismay, saying it was unusual for a public body to pass an emergency law such as this except in a time of war. After ignoring the subject for a year, the UK is moving swiftly to ensure its passage at a speed which, according to Snowden “defies belief.”
He pointed to the US effort in 2007 to pass what became the Protect America Act which also contained concerns about terrorist threats. The 2007 US legislation also was responding to the NSA fear that it was losing voluntary cooperation from telecom and internet companies. The similarities with the UK proposed law are eerie according to Snowden:
“I mean the NSA could have written this draft. They passed it under the same sort of emergency justification. They said we would be at risk. They said companies will no longer cooperate with us. We’re losing valuable intelligence that puts the nation at risk.”
He is not alone in this regard. Members of British civil liberties groups concur and dispute the notion that this is just an interim bill which will not increase the powers of the surveillance agencies as suggested by politicians- most notably David Cameron who is seeking cross-party support for the measure.
The Guardian purports to have seen elements in the fine print which would contradict the government’s view. Those opposing the law complain that it contains new and unparalleled powers for the UK government to require overseas companies to comply with interception warrants and communications data acquisition requests. It would force them to build interception capabilities into their products and systems.
The move by the British government is curious, to Snowden’s thinking. in light of an April ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which declared some of the existing surveillance measures were invalid.
The speed and content of such law making represented a “significant change”… would grant ”new authorities immediately without any debate, just taking their word for it, despite the fact that these same authorities were just declared unlawful by the ECJ.” He added:
“Is it really going to be so costly for us to take a few days to debate where the line should be drawn about the authority and what really serves the public interest? If these surveillance authorities are so interested, so invasive, the courts are actually saying they violate fundamental rights, do we really want to authorize them on a new, increased and more intrusive scale without any public debate?”
Though an expert on the subject, Snowden’s impact on the debate is doubtful. While a privacy champion in the eyes of many, he holds little sway over parliamentarians garnering little vocal support. Each party fears that a terrorist attack would put them on the wrong side of the issue if they voiced opposition. For its part the British government is justifying the latest measure by pointing to the ECJ ruling and the latest disclosures by the US that Yemeni Islamist groups are threatening to blow up a transatlantic airliner. This echoes the language used by the Bush administration in 2007, citing a repeat of the 9/11 attacks as rationale for the Protect America Act. That measure became law after a mere four days of consideration and no substantive public debate.
It will be interesting to see what, if any, yesterday’s downing of a jetliner over the Ukraine has in this controversy. For while the Malaysia Airlines incident may not have been caused by Islamic extremists, governments may argue that better communications surveillance and interception may have prevented the incident. It certainly won’t hurt the argument of surveillance authorities. That’s for sure. But it doesn’t address the underlying complaints against this bill – that is the seeming rush to judgement inherent in its rapid ascent to become law.