Interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, ahead of an ISC announcement expected later today, Jimmy Wales of the Wikimedia foundation, which yesterday launched legal action against the US National Security Agency, argued that mass surveillance of communications by the intelligence services has to stop.
“For me one of the key elements is one of the oldest bits of jurisprudence in free societies, which is probable cause. Get a warrant, go to a judge. Don’t surveil everyone,” he said.
“Bulk collection of data is incredibly dangerous,” he said.
“We’ve been very lucky that we live in a society where we don’t have leaders who are using that kind of data for political assassinations and so forth but that possibility exists so long as this data is being collected,” Wales added.
Interviewed at the same time, Nigel Inkster of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former deputy chief at intelligence service MI6, sought to downplay the activities of the spy agencies. Asked whether mass surveillance should be troubling in a free society, Inkster said:
“It would be troubling if it were mass surveillance but it’s not what we’re talking about here. It is a bulk collection of civilian telecommunications, something which has actually been going on for decades without obvious detriment to civil liberty human rights, in order for the intelligence agencies to identify very narrow and specific sets of information about threats.”
This is an interesting statement given that such activities may well have been against the law.
Inkster also sought to broaden the argument to cover the activities of commercial organisations such as Google, contrasting the legal framework under which the security agencies must operate with the free-for-all of the internet.
“I think the biggest thing to come out of the Snowden revelations is the growing realisation by people around the world that the degree to which their personal data has been traded and commoditised without their active consent by [commercial organisations] who are operating with very few of the constraints under which intelligence services in democratic societies do operate,” Inkster said.
Wales believes that the rise of end-to-end encryption will soon make life very difficult for the intelligence agencies. Citing the example of WhatsApp he said:
“If you use the application everything you type is encrypted from your computer to your friend’s computer. The service itself has no way to read it, GCHQ can’t read it, NSA can’t read it. That’s what consumers are demanding today because of the overall intrusive nature of what’s been going on.”
Wales went on: “People in China are using Tor to browse websites. The genie is out of the bottle and there’s nothing to be done about it.”
Inkster’s response was that this would be a dangerous thing. Arguing that the rise of encryption is more to do with market share than concerns over personal privacy, he said:
“The big question to be answered here is about whether we do actually want to live in a world where no communications can be controlled.”
He went on: “There is no doubt that the Snowden revelations have provided for many malevolent actors on the internet a roadmap that minimises the risk of them getting caught.”