Edward Snowden's leaks have been hugely embarrassing for the US and UK governments. The news that they – and other nations – are committed to wholesale electronic spying on their citizens has shaken public confidence in our security services. But now that it's out in the open, can we make progress in the battle for greater protection and privacy online?
This week some of the world's biggest technology firms (including Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo!) have won the battle to disclose more information on the number of user data requests they receive from the US government. Back in October, the US Department of Justice claimed that the information that the companies seek to disclose is "classified" and could harm national security.
Nevertheless, the new ruling means that the companies are allowed to publish the aggregate numbers of orders under the NSA's PRISM programme.
Let's call that victory one.
Second, several firms – including Microsoft – have declared that they'll be storing customer data outside the US, in order to avoid the NSA's snooping. One hopes they're not piling it all into the UK given the extent of GCHQ's activities. The move was described as "incredibly positive" by the Center for Digital Democracy, a US consumer protection and privacy group.
Let's call that victory two.
So, progress appears good in the greater war to safeguard our beleaguered personal information.
Except this 'progress' doesn't bear scrutiny. Firms can publish data on NSA requests, but they will not be able to say exactly how many they have received, just a range, like 250 and 499 national security orders, for example. Interesting, but the snooping still happens. So much for the first victory.
And as for storing data outside the US – who believes that the FBI spooks are throwing their hands up in the air and saying "Gee Chad, this data's outside our borders, guess we'll just give up." No. If they want your data, they'll get it.
Pyrrhic victories then, both.
And Snowden's revelations just represent the extent of the snooping we now know about, but is that merely the tip of the iceberg? To answer that we need another Snowden, and given the hunted life he has been forced to lead since his leaks, I'd be surprised if another one materialises any time soon.
Remember home secretary Theresa May's draft Communications Data bill? You might know it better as the ‘Snoopers' Charter'. The idea was that ISPs and mobile phone companies would maintain records of everyone's browsing activity, emails, phone calls, internet gaming and just about everything else for 12 months.
Originally expected to be enacted this year, it's now looking unlikely to ever become law in its current form thanks to massive opposition from the media, public, privacy groups and even deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
But everything it tried to impose on us was already happening anyway, only to a far worse extent. That's what we're dealing with. Smoke and mirrors.
The NSA, GCHQ and all their contemporaries in this sordid game will continue to ply their trade and mine our information long after this media storm blows over. The only sane advice is to type nothing into a computer which you wouldn't be happy to see published on the front page of the Daily Mail.
Good luck with that.
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