It is now almost two years since whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked classified information on the surveillance activities of the NSA and its allies in the GCHQ and other agencies around the world. Eighteen months later Laura Poitras’ film Citizenfour about Snowden was released, and four months after that it won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Another film, this one a biopic directed by Oliver Stone entitled Snowden, is due out at the end of this year.
To the chagrin of the authorities and the tech giants, the story has refused to die.
However, despite hugely increased public awareness of intrusions into privacy by government agencies and corporate interests alike, on the surface the situation in the UK seems remarkably unaltered.
“GCHQ surveillance probably hasn’t changed at all,” said Mike Harris, director of campaigning consultancy 89up, one of the UK distributors of Citizenfour, at the 44Con Cyber Security event in London this week.
“And the law hasn’t been reformed – in fact the three main parties ganged up to bash though even more Draconian legislation.”
However, Harris sees a number hopeful signs that many things are moving in a different direction. In spite of a rearguard action by the security services the momentum now lies with those demanding more respect for personal privacy and an end to warrant-less mass surveillance, he told Computing.
1. Politicians have been forced to talk about surveillance
“Political parties have gone from not talking at all about mass population surveillance to having a position on it. For example the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and smaller parties like the Pirate Party have all made very specific pledges in their manifestos to roll back mass surveillance,” Harris said.
Both Labour and Conservatives have also pledged to increase oversight of the intelligence agencies, he went on, albiet while the latter is also looking to increase their powers.
“This debate wasn’t happening before.”
2. Public opinion has turned
“The majority of people in the UK are now in favour of what Edward Snowden has done,” Harris claimed, saying that the whistleblower’s approval ratings have gone from “the low 40s” when the story broke to “the solid 50s” now.
“In the youngest age groups especially you have a very large majority in favour of Snowden,” he went on.
“People see him as a hero, not as a traitor or a narcissist, which is what the intelligence agencies have tried to portray him as.”
3. Knowledge about the value of personal data has increased
“People are starting to realise that the reason some social media is free or their smartphone is cheap is because they’re giving away data,” Harris said.
It may only be a minority who care about this enough to change their behaviour at the moment, he continued, but this minority contains some highly influential people.
“Chief executives, lawyers, doctors… They’re thinking ‘hang on – that information I’ve got on my smartphone or on social media, that could be worth a lot of money and also it’s dangerous for me to have that information on there’.”
4. The media has woken up
In the beginning the British media was largely hostile to Snowden and firmly behind the authorities, but Harris says this is changing.
“This week The Sun launched a secure drop-off point for people to give them information, with instructions on how to download Tor.
“This is extraordinary. Tor is the thing the intelligence services were saying was evil, for paedos and wierdos and Al Quaeda. The Sun is a sort of bellwether newspaper and the fact that they are advocating extreme privacy measures is very interesting.”
Having journalists arrested and sources uncovered due to surveillance is what may have prompted this change of heart.
“The Metropolitan Police used RIPA legislation to expose their journalistic sources, so suddenly they’re thinking: the police are getting at our private information, we need secure systems.”
5. Europe is finding a voice
“The EU is making a very big play on data protection regulations. We’re now seeing the European Court of Justice ruling on the Data Protection Directive saying that this [the Digital Rights Ireland case or Europe vs Facebook] is incompatible with European law,” Harris explained.
He added: “We’re also seeing the European Court of Human Rights taking a case brought by members of the Don’t Spy On Us coalition and they are going to make a big decision as to whether the TEMPORA programme was legal or not.”
“A lot of European countries remember the Stasi, the communists, the fascists. They are far more aware of what governments can do with data so I think we will come to a much more solid position on privacy than the US,” Harris concluded.