UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is engaging in a bit of wishful thinking in his call for people to eschew discussion about Edward Snowden and his revelations so that government agencies can get back to the business of unfettered, uninterrupted spying on individual’s communications. He also is no doubt echoing sentiments of his confreres in the US in wishing the debacle would simply disappear.
Fortunately for those who cherish personal liberty, the furor will not simply die. And in fact, the very contentious debate is likely to be stoked by Snowden’s expressed desire to return to the US to face the music and the attendant prospects of further exposing the vast government surveillance apparatus.
The Secretary bemoans the fact that government spying by the GCHQ is being hampered by or at least side-tracked by the clamor for more of Snowden’s information, but the fact remains that the workings of a free society are being played out in the controversy and the continued revelation of salient details of government’s intrusive role. Even Hammond is cognizant of this in stating,
“I am conscious, in the wake of the Snowden allegations and in light of the upcoming parliamentary and other inquiries, that we need to address public concerns about the transparency of the regulatory framework and the powers contained within it.”
He tempered this remark by saying that this “debate cannot be allowed to run on forever.” That, of course, will depend on how government responds going forward to either more revelations or an airing of the matter in the public trial of Edward Snowden.
At the heart of the controversy is the time-worn policy of personal privacy versus national security. Hammond is against any effort to dilute the agencies’ surveillance capabilities, as they are, in his opinion commensurate with the changes in technology and present and future external threats.
Privacy advocates would argue whether the surveillance practices are warranted, let alone effective in exposing threats, pointing out that the gathering and storing of billions of pieces of information have yielded relatively little in the way of threats. Hammond opined,
“We are right to question the powers required by our agencies, and particularly by GCHQ, to monitor private communications in order to do their job. But we should not lose sight of the vital balancing act between the privacy we desire and the security we need.”
Hammond goes on to say that in his judgement the collection and sifting of metadata to extract a few nuggets of actionable intelligence all in the name of security, is justifiable. As long as a key government official touts this message, the louder the cries from privacy advocates should be. And as far as the Snowden controversy slowing down the machinations of government spying, suffice to say that it could come grinding to a halt in any future court contest between Snowden and his accusers – a confrontation that should be welcomed, regardless of where you stand on the Snowden issue. But the lesson here is clear- the debate over reining-in government snooping by civil libertarians is not only healthy and necessary, but guaranteed and protected by law.