Sunday 22 September 2013

Snowden makes me think about dropbears

This is an image from a news story dated in the first week of August but it's all that we've got as to the location of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, now hiding in Russia. Is this guy standing next to a car really Snowden? What we do know is that Snowden has animated Americans, including such people as President Obama and Republican Senator John McCain, to talk publicly about the scale of the problem of massive state surveillance of private communications. All of your emails, your social media posts, your Skype calls - well, basically everything you say online - is being collected and screened for evil intent by faceless men and women sitting at computer screens in Utah.

Overseas, Simon Jenkins in the UK has compared his country's response to the Snowden revelations unfavourably compared to the US.
Britons are not only subject to massive unwarranted surveillance, surveillance that is insecure and unaccountable. They are also at the mercy of intrusive institutions which, for the time being, their politicians will not and cannot control. When push comes to shove, Americans do this better.
They have the Fourth Amendment in the US, while there is no similar legal instrument in the UK. The UK security apparatus - comprising MI5, MI6 and GCHQ - is deeply involved in the global surveillance program Snowden uncovered earlier this year. The UK is part of the "Five Eyes" group of nations - the others being Canada, New Zealand and Australia - and in response to Jenkins' spray their own security oversight committee head, Malcolm Rifkind, has admitted that "the whistleblower Edward Snowden has raised 'real issues' about safeguarding privacy in the 21st century". Jenkins says Rifkind is a "patsy".

Now dropbears are mythic creatures inhabiting the Australian bush that are routinely trotted out in the palaver around the nightly campfire to scare 12-year-olds. But given the reality of the cooperation between the Five Eyes nations in terms of security activities you have to wonder at the silence that has cloaked whatever participation there has been - and undoubtedly there is cooperation between ASIO and ASIS, Australia's security bodies, and the NSA - around the globe in countries other than the UK. Given its location, Australia is well-placed to provide unique access, for example, to undersea communications infrastructure such as cables used for internet traffic. Situated in Asia, furthermore, Australia has a long history of providing the US with assistance with its signals operations; Pine Gap for instance.

So far we have not seen any dropbears emerge here to betray Australia's intelligence services but the question lingers like the smell of smoke and char on your clothes after a night spent around the campfire. One would hope that it's only a matter of time, but then again given Australia's supine spy agencies and even more toadyish politicians, I don't think I'll be putting anything on hold in anticipation of revelations. ASIO and ASIS might reliably believe that they are too-small targets for Snowdenish uncoverings, and are likely unconcerned for the moment that their own forms of blanket surveillance of citizens' communications will be brought to light.

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