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Snowden and the debate on surveillance versus privacy

16 Dec 2014

Seminar ReportWhen Ewen MacAskill, the Guardian’s Defence and Intelligence correspondent, flew to Hong Kong in June 2013 to meet a mysterious and anonymous source, he thought he was going to work on “just another story”.  It turned out to be the biggest leak of secret information in history. In the first few days with Edward Snowden, a system administrator for NSA’s contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, in his hotel room in Hong Kong, MacAskill, Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, and independent filmmaker Laura Poitras realized they were being trusted with one of the most important intelligence revelations in recent history; a vast amount of internal details on the operations of National Security Agency (NSA) and its international partners. They were evidence of how the post 9/11 surveillance apparatus have grown in the last decade. “We assumed it was a hoax”, said MacAskill, who now recognizes that the “Snowden affair” has dominated his life since the summer of 2013. The great escape After meeting MacAskill and the others and offering him 60,000 secret intelligence documents full of complex and technical information), Snowden escaped to Russia, were he lives now under temporary asylum protection. MacAskill describes Snowden as a patriot who sympathized with American libertarians, who “paid the highest price” for the leaks, for which he faces “serious consequences” and risks possible life in prison if he ever goes back to the US. Snowden “could spend the rest of his life in Russia” or be Russia’s bargaining chip in an eventual prisoner swap with the United States, according to MacAskill. Consequences for the press and civil liberties Although modest reforms have been proposed in the US to alleviate public concerns on privacy, the consequences of the Snowden leaks are still looming large. Big tech companies are taking steps to strengthen encryption and maintain the security of their data centres, and the press is more aware now of the importance of protecting communications with sources to avoid eavesdropping and to allow whistle blowers to come forward. After steps were taken by Google, Facebook and other tech companies to ensure privacy of communications, MacAskill thinks that the most significant changes may come from the private sector, which doesn’t want the public to think they are granting access to governments without adequate warrants. No real debate in UK Nevertheless, MacAskill lamented that “there was no real debate” on surveillance in the UK compared to other countries such as Germany or the US, where Snowden’s revelations were more extensively covered in the media and debated by the Legislative. While in the US all the big media outlets repeated the Snowden revelations for months, MacAskill pointed out that the BBC chose not to report in depth about the leaks, something he attributed in part to “being too close to the establishment”. British intelligence officers have harshly criticized the Guardian’s revelations for what they say has reduced by 30% the secret services’ capacities to fight terrorism and criminal organizations. MacAskill reminded his audience that GCHQ was a big player alongside the NSA in the surveillance of internet and phone communications around the world and the creator of “Tempora”, a digital monitoring program that was even envied by US counterparts for its “extraordinary scale”. In his opinion, in the UK there is no serious political oversight or public scrutiny over these surveillance programs. MacAskill believes that after examining the documents handed over by Snowden (that today are kept in a safe room at the New York Times headquarters) “what it boils down to is not the existence of an evil empire, but the fact that they -the secret services- have gone too far…With the internet they were able to reach a level never seen before”. “A lot of juicy stories” MacAskill said that so far they have revealed only 1% of all the information handed over by Snowden and the Guardian will never publish operational information that can put lives at risk. “There are a lot of juicy stories there”, he says, but the paper has decided that it will restrict its coverage to “purely constitutional issues”. Ewen MacAskill has also contributed to former RISJ fellow Luke Harding’s new book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man.

Written by Jairo Mejia.

Ewen MacAskill, defence and security correspondent, the Guardian spoke at the Business and Practice of Journalism seminar at Green Templeton College on Wednesday 3 December 2014.

Picture credit flickr: Jonathan McIntosh