ORG Manchester surveillance debate 21-Sep-14 report

On Sunday 21st September 2014 a free event was held at the Anthony Burgess Museum, Manchester, United Kingdom. Attendance was around 70-100 people and filled the small room available, a good turnout it seems for such an event on a Sunday evening.

The event entitled Surveillance, where do you draw the line? as part of the Don’t Spy On Us campaign was organised by the Manchester wing of the Open Rights Group and centred around digital rights and especially surveillance in relation to the revelations revealed within the past few years from the likes of Edward Snowden.

Mike Harris the Director of the Don’t Spy on Us campaign hosted the event with a panel made up of :-

  • Jim Killock – Director, Open Rights Group
  • Carly Nyst – Legal Director, Privacy International
  • Claude Moraes MEP – Chair of Justice and Home Affairs Committee, European Parliament
  • Tom Watson – MP West Bromwich East
  • Ewen MacAskill – The Guardian journalist who helped break the Snowden revelations

Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP was invited to attend the event but did not confirm and so was not present. The event was billed to kick off at 6:30 BST and actually started not much later than the planned timing.

ORG Manchester 21-09-14

A 5 minute slot was given to each panel member to discuss who they are and who or what organisation they represented. I was especially interested to hear from Ewen MacAskill being more aware of his role and the impact he has made in regard to surveillance dealings than the other panel members, although after hearing each one speak I was rather impressed by all speakers and the information that they portrayed at the event.

The Speakers

Ewen MacAskill

Ewen MacAskill took the stage first as was to be expected and was probably the most interesting guest at the event in relation to the actual topic. For those unaware of the role of Ewen MacAskill he was one of the journalists who travelled to Hong Kong to speak with Edward Snowden and was instrumental in breaking the story in The Guardian that we now perceive as the Snowden Revelations.

MacAskill came across as a mild mannered likeable Scot who started off downplaying his role in the revelations and although stating that he had travelled to Hong Kong and been given tens of thousands of documents made a point to give credit to Laura Poitras who as MacAskill stated was the first person to take Snowden seriously when he first started to reach out to the media. MacAskill followed on crediting Glenn Greenwald and others and while he may of downplayed his own input in to the saga, the rapturous round of applause at the end of his speech showed that the audience considered his involvement as all important and was well praised.

MacAskill, a man who appears in his 60’s after crediting others started off his speech admitting his naivety to the internet and surveillance pre-Snowden. After meeting Snowden in Hong Kong he couldn’t understand why he was prepared to sacrifice so much which for a man of his years is understandable, admitting he is not of the internet generation. A good point was made that MacAskill was not anti-inteligence and was glad agencies exist, however he felt that the line between surveillance and privacy has been skewed but did iterate that when it comes to anti-terrorism, paedophile rings and organised crime understands their benefit, yet surveillance as a whole has gone that bit too far.

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One area of concern MacAskill raised was how unaware he was of the links between the intelligence agencies and the technology companies in regard to what we now understand how they hand over masses of data to the likes of the NSA et al. He discussed how the financial remuneration between the technology companies and the NSA even now is still not known. MacAskill recounted how in the period of running the stories he contacted Microsoft to enquire how much they are paid by the NSA to which he explained they would not tell him, instead informing him that it would appear like a big figure to him but not to them which was met with a laughter filled room.

MacAskill touched upon the important issue of protecting journalist sources and how the NSA and GCHQ within 5-10 minutes could access who he had been speaking to for the last 3 months. He continued raising the issue that there is no proper oversight of this surveillance either in the UK or USA and pointed to the case of James R. Clapper, Head of the National Security Agency who told the US Senate that there is no mass surveillance of American citizens which in MacAskill’s words, “he was lying”. Calling for a change of legislation and proper oversight to ensure that these situations are not possible.

The speech of MacAskill was summed up recounting seeing Edward Snowden two months ago in Moscow, reiterating the importance of what he revealed and how much he sacrificed to bring the story to light. MacAskill stated that Snowden is not happy in Moscow nor does he want or did he intend to go to Russia which as we all know was a stop gap en route to Latin America. According to MacAskill, Edward Snowden had spoken to the US about a possible deal and was prepared to go back to the states and do prison time. However if he did return he has been charged under the espionage act which would mean he would be trialled by a judge without a jury and the only way he would return is if there it was a jury based trial. It currently looks as if Snowden will be stuck in Russia for the rest of his life with MacAskill stating that he doubts anyone in western Europe would be prepared to offer him asylum.

In an ending solemn tone MacAskill stated that in a perfect world we would find some way to help Edward Snowden.

Claude Moraes

Claude Moraes opened explaining he was the Rapporteur for the European Parliament Inquiry into the Mass Surveillance of EU citizens. Moraes told how the past two years of his life had been quite extraordinary including being in a room with the then head of the NSA, Keith Alexander. Being in a locked room in Washington and shown all the reasons why we need mass surveillance including showing Moraes a file on himself. After the meeting Moraes explained how he was then told to go back and “tell Europe” why we need mass surveillance and as stuck in Moraes mind, “Shame on you if you don’t”.

Moraes touched upon how at the end of the European Parliament Inquiry how he thanked Edward Snowden who without we would be unaware of what was really going on. Further to this it has introduced the ability for politicians such as Moraes to learn from the likes of Jacob Applebaum and Edward Snowden and to understand the full extent of the situation. He stated that we understand we need security but that we don’t need the whole haystack to find the needle.

Moraes finished his speech noting that mass data retention was quickly passed due to certain events such as the 7/7 London bombings which since have been overturned but regardless human rights are important and we must always be vigilant.

Carly Nyst

Next up Carly Nyst of Privacy International took the stage and explained they are one of 6 organisations who have come together to organise the campaign Don’t Spy On Us. Nyst started by thanking those supporting the event due to the importance of all sectors of society getting involved in such campaigns and organisations. Nyst explained how Privacy International have been taking on mass surveillance for over 20 years but how they were also shocked at the details that Edward Snowden revealed and while many suspected this type of surveillance went on no one really understood the full horror and scale of it with the legal manipulations that appeared to take place to justify it both in the US and UK.

Nyst made a good point regarding the fact that everyone was shocked was the issue and that the depth of surveillance in the name of security was underestimated. With such a lack of understanding it makes it impossible to make a judgement on this for the general population. Nyst touched upon the fact that while surveillance is sold as a way of making us safer we have no information or ability to understand what is going on, why this makes us safer and how we are expected to just accept the justifications without question. Nyst finalised the issue stating that we need more details, more transparency and more oversight.

Nyst then went on to explain how Privacy International have been doing two major things, firstly how they have taken GCHQ to court and sat in a trial to hear how the government think mass surveillance is legal under current legislation. Nyst then agreed with Ewen MacAskill who earlier stated how the legislation is completely out of date and not fit for the purpose of today’s society and technological advances and how it allows for all types of activities by the intelligence agencies that should not go on.

Carly Nyst explained how hearing such reasoning was shocking and that there is a strong belief that mass surveillance is acceptable by the state. One reason for this is the refusal to accept that metadata is as important as content data. The importance of this was explained by Nyst who quoted Stuart Baker of the NSA who stated that they kill people on the basis of metadata which is somewhat at odds with the notion that metadata is unimportant.

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It was explained that the resolution of the case against GCHQ is to be expected by the end of 2014 however Privacy International are expecting to lose as the tone of the court appeared in favour of the Government’s stance although should the expected loss come they have already moved to fight the measure at the European courts. She made the point that it is clear that the British intelligence services still do not see what they are doing is in any way unacceptable. Nyst went on to explain how we as a population need to make our voices heard more loudly because she did not feel this point was getting through.

I agree wholly with Carly Nyst’s statement in that especially the UK public seem underwhelmed with the information that came to light in recent years and only those who have a keen interest in the subject already seem to be making noise. This somewhat differs to the outrage that has been seen in countries such as the United States where the general public are more likely to voice their displeasure at the revelations whereas the British public has been somewhat more subdued in their response. This point is clear when considering the demographic who attended the actual ORG Manchester Surveillance event which appeared to be made up overall of those already involved in such types of interests.

The issue of openness and discussion from Government organisations was highlighted by Nyst who informed the audience that the trial was based around a hypothetical situation and if they had hypothetically been doing surveillance, at no point was such surveillance even acknowledged. Nyst clarified this point with an anecdote of the judge in the case asking the British government to clarify the pronunciation of the surveillance programme to which the response was they can neither confirm nor deny the pronunciation.

Jim Killock

Jim Killock started off his speech with information on the Open Rights Group itself explaining that when they formed they tackled issues such as Data Retention in Europe of telephone and internet records giving a history of that issue becoming law and more recently being overturned by the European Court of Justice. He then went on to discuss how they had debated metadata and its use within the police force in fairly common kinds of crime including very routine investigations.

He then touched upon when Edward Snowden released the details that he did that everyone had been lied to including the UK Parliament, Members of Parliament and so had the general public stating that every facet of society had been denied a debate on mass retention of data and mass surveillance. He continued explaining that the agencies are now backtracking to make such surveillance appear acceptable because computers are analysing the data and this somehow changes that acceptance because a human is not actually doing the analysis. An important aspect of the needle and haystack analogy was glossed upon when Killock stated that the spy agencies reaffirm their need for mass surveillance because they need the haystack to find the needle and the general public should not be concerned because they are merely innocent hay.

While Killock was not necessarily making a point of if this type of surveillance was right or wrong but more the fact that these types of discussions should have been made before they started to carry out such surveillance and not justify the unknown surveillance after we had so spectacularly learned of the existence thanks to Edward Snowden.

Tom Watson

Tom Watson the MP for West Bromwich East was an interesting character who started off explaining his history and what lead him to becoming an MP. He came across as a very forthright and open speaker who pointed out that his journey did not start off to discuss Digital Rights but that it was now an issue that has become of more importance. While Watson explained that he is a great nationalist and believes in a strong state he was concerned with recent revelations because of the position that it puts Government in when their own ministers do not understand what is going on behind the scenes.

Watson continued to explain that he had previously been a defence minister and within that role had some of the spy organisations within his sphere, however regardless of position he claimed to have no idea of any of the programmes that we are now aware of, what their purpose was, the ideas behind them or the justification for them. He summed up this concern that if he had no idea then where is the accountability for these actions if even a defence minister is not aware of their existence.

He continued with various politic topics and historical struggles. Further to this he encouraged audience members to sign up to political parties to make a change to mass surveillance and stated that it is up to members of the public to get involved or forever rely on the current or future leaders to do it who have already failed the public by not allowing the public voice to be heard.

Mike Harris

Mike Harris then briefly touched upon the history of the secret services in situations where various people have been put under surveillance in the past which made a good point to remind us that surveillance has been happening wrongly for many years however we do not have a full understanding of what the Snowden revelations entail and how they fully affect us. He continued stating it took a US private security contractor for us to learn of the scale of the UK Governments involvement and the fact they tap huge undersea cables in Cornwall, United Kingdom which records and stores nearly all data entering and leaving the UK for 30 days.

Harris noted that later this year there will be a film coming out about Edward Snowden and his motivations and encouraged the audience to go and see it and get involved in the political process to bring about changes. He made it clear that their goal is to see a manifesto from the three main political parties to bring reform to surveillance in the United Kingdom.

Event Summary

The speeches were all very interesting and well thought through, none more so than the one Ewen MacAskill made and I would of liked to have heard further stories from him regarding Edward Snowden as it was fascinating to listen to.

The second half of the debate leant itself to audience questions which is the point at which the evening shifted tone and I felt was wasted opportunity to really question the panel and ask them questions that matter. Why this opportunity was wasted was due to the fact that the majority of the audience who appeared to want to ask questions felt more at ease with self promotion and what they had been doing in relation to matters either related or wholly unrelated to the topic at hand.

While one or two good points were made from public audience members such as one who was concerned about the types of data that companies now had access to and what could be done about that and another who stated most correctly that we are unlikely to see another Snowden and these revelations need to be capitalised on. Aside from these two pointers and maybe one or two others the majority of audience members who took the opportunity to “ask questions” seemed more intent on making claims regarding their own situations either legal or other which could not be substantiated at such an event and so their points became void.

While the event itself was fantastic and for a first time attendee thoroughly interesting I felt that the opportunity to quiz the panel members, especially the likes of Ewen MacAskill was wasted. Lengthy statements were made by certain audience members with very little meat in the way of question padded out by irrelevance and off-topic noise which pushed the event to it’s time limit when others may have had more interesting questions that could of given a better insight in to the panels response.

An interesting side note of the event was the filming policy, or lack of. One rather astute participant felt that the event and topic was of such importance that he took it upon himself to live stream the event. While this was commendable, one audience member who had the opportunity to ask a question stated that he did not wished to be filmed. While this is entirely understandable for a member of the public to request, it was somewhat baffling due to the fact that an event which was held in a major city in the United Kingdom would of lead to many hundreds of surveillance cameras filming the majority of attendees entering the event such as CCTV on the streets and also either CCTV on public transport or cameras which record motorway and car journeys.

Slightly more bizarre was the request by MEP Claude Moraes to also not be filmed even though I assumed he was there in a public role rather than a personal one. This was furthermore strange as I noted him sporting a displeasing look when noticing being photographed from the other side of the room. Future events may benefit from a clear filming policy to limit such further displeasure.

While I fully accept it everyone’s right to accept or deny being photographed or filmed in a private location I assume that the majority of the room make use of systems such as Facebook, Google and many other online media companies who do plenty more than a private photograph which only goes to show the lack of understanding of the public when regards to personal information.

The event overall was insightful and well worth attending, the Open Rights Group and other panel members groups aims are commendable. I would like to see more general members of the public attending such events rather than just those who already have a vested interest in such matters or those involved in similar types of activity. If we are ever to further the message regarding surveillance then events such as these should be more accessible to the layman and more inclusive of those who know less about the situation and matters discussed.

Open Rights Group

Further information about the Open Rights Group and their campaigns can be seen at the ORG Website. For those interested in keeping up to date with their latest announcements they are available to follow on Twitter. The Manchester wing of the ORG is also available on Twitter.

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