Fury over US and UK spying as new details leaked
Leaked files show that US and UK spy agencies are monitoring global communications on a massive scale. The targets of this snooping are furious – but spies say they are keeping people safe.
Spies like to operate from the shadows. Now, after the largest leak of top secret documents in history, they are in the spotlight – and the public does not like what it is seeing. Spies are meant to target criminals and terrorists. These days, it turns out, they spend a surprising amount of time spying on us – the ordinary people they are meant to protect.
The leaks started in May this year, when a computer programmer called Edward Snowden sent a huge trove of highly classified documents to The Guardian newspaper. The documents revealed top secret details of spying operations run by America’s electronic surveillance organisation, the NSA, and its British equivalent, GCHQ.
Journalists combing through the documents are still finding new details to shock the world. First we learnt that spies are keeping records of the electronic communications of millions of their own citizens. They keep this ‘metadata’ just in case it one day becomes useful. If hunting terrorists is like looking for needles in a haystack, modern spies have simply decided to sweep up all the hay, whether there are needles there or not.
Then came the news that the NSA had been monitoring the phones of up to 35 foreign heads of state – not just of the leaders of rival nations like Russia and China but also of allies like Germany and Brazil. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was furious. She grew up in Soviet East Germany, where people lived in fear of being spied on by the notorious secret police. She did not expect such treatment from the USA, the leading country of the free world.
Most recently, it was alleged that the NSA hacked into the secure servers of Google and Yahoo and copied entire email accounts, despite having no reason to believe they contained any useful information. Google said it was ‘outraged’ by the news, and demanded ‘urgent reform.’
But NSA hacking attacks are not limited to Google and Yahoo. Spies are accused of having inserted ‘back doors’ into commonly used encryption programmes. Cracking encryption like this would give spies access to coded information anywhere on the internet.
Edward Snowden’s leaks have caused a worldwide debate – and spy agencies may now face new restrictions on their data-gathering powers. Not everyone is pleased by this. UK prime minister David Cameron accused Snowden’s supporters of having a ‘lah di dah’ attitude to security. We share a dangerous world with people who want to ‘blow up our families’. We need powerful spies to keep us safe.
Snowden and his allies accept that terrorism is a real danger, but they fear something worse: government tyranny. Losing our privacy, they say, is the first step towards losing our freedom.
- What is more important: protecting ten thousand people’s online privacy or saving one person’s life? What about one hundred thousand people’s privacy? Or a million?
- Which is a bigger threat: international terrorism or domestic tyranny?
- In groups, work out an escape plan for getting out of the country while being hunted by spy agencies. What modes of transport would be safe to use? How would you cross the border?
- Write a science-fiction story set in a world where all actions are under surveillance all the time. What are the consequences of such surveillance? Does the good outweigh the bad?
Some People Say...
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Wow! So nothing is private online?
- It’s not quite that simple. Spy agencies have probably got details of who you have been communicating with saved somewhere – but they don’t actually use that data unless they have reason to think you may be a threat.
- Why would anyone think I was a threat?
- You might get an email from a suspicious address. The words you use in a message might alert an automatic system somewhere. Terrorist keywords like ‘bomb’ or ‘attack’ cause emails to be flagged up automatically.
- Is there anything I can do to ensure my privacy?
- No. If the government wants to hack your account, it can hack your account. Even the toughest security does nothing but slow them down. The only question is: why would they bother?
- Edward Snowden
- 29-year-old Edward Snowden is a computer programmer who was employed by a private company doing work for America’s National Security Agency, better known as the NSA. He used his position to access thousands of classified documents, which he leaked in May to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Before he leaked the documents, Snowden fled to Hong Kong, and he is now in hiding in Russia. If he ever returned to the US he could expect a lengthy prison sentence.
- Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters is the spy agency responsible for the UK’s electronic surveillance and communications monitoring. During the second world war, it made a major contribution to allied victory by cracking the codes used by Nazi submarines.
- Secret police
- After the second world war, Germany was divided into two countries: capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany, controlled by the Soviet Union. In East Germany, political dissent was tightly controlled, and those suspected of opposing the government were monitored by the notorious secret police – the ‘Stasi’. Saying the wrong thing could land you in prison, or worse.