18 Dec 2013

Greenwald: UK poses ‘primary threat’ to EU citizens’ privacy

Journalist Glenn Greenwald tells an EU inquiry that the UK’s collection of metadata is the “primary threat” to EU privacy, as the White House publishes a review of the NSA’s surveillance.

The American journalist was the first to publish key documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. And Mr Greenwald did not hold back in his criticism of the security agencies – or of EU governments, for their lack of investigation of the revelations – while giving evidence to an EU inquiry (see video above).

The UK’s GCHQ bore the brunt of his condemnation.

He said: “The ultimate goal of the NSA, along with its most loyal, one might say subservient junior partner the British agency GCHQ – when it comes to the reason why the system of suspicion of surveillance is being built and the objective of this system – is nothing less than the elimination of individual privacy worldwide.”

Reams of NSA and GCHQ documents exposed widespread surveillance of emails and mobile phone metadata by the US and UK governments, and have had a huge impact around the world.

It is the UK through their interception of underwater fibre optic cables, that is a primary threat to the privacy of European citizens when it comes to their telephone and emails – Glenn Greenwald

The US has reviewed the NSA’s data-gathering as a result of the information revealed, and an official on Wednesday told the New York Times that the proposed changes would be “significantly more far-reaching than many expected.”

A report of the presidential advisory committee’s review of the NSA, which reportedly contains 40 recommendations, has been released.

Early indications are that it has recommended that the NSA should not retain its vast database of phone records, and that phone companies or a third party should hold the data instead of the surveillance agency.

The findings will support the case of Mr Greenwald, who reserved his most stinging criticism of governments for their collection of phone data.

He told the EU inquiry that the collection of metadata for phones – which resulted in diplomatic fallout between Germany and the US, after it revealed Chancellor Merkel’s phone was monitored – was far more invasive than phone and email snooping.

He said that the UK government’s interception of cables posed the greatest threat to EU citizens. “When it comes to European metadata, the NSA plays a very important role,” he said. “But it is the UK through their interception of underwater fibre optic cables and their invasion into all sorts of systems including by very controversial means of hacking as Der Spiegel has reported, that is a primary threat to the privacy of European citizens when it comes to their telephone and email communications – at least as much if not more so than the NSA.”

‘Almost Orwellian’

The White House review of the NSA follows comments from a federal judge on Monday, in which the NSA’s mass collection of American’s telephone data was described as “almost Orwellian”.

In a fierce rebuke of President Obama, Appeals Court Judge Richard Leon said that America’s founding father James Madison would be “aghast” at the NSA.

Mr Snowden revealed that a US surveillance court had secretly approved the collection of millions of raw daily phone records in America, including information about the length of calls and the numbers that are dialled.

Ringo without John, Paul and George

In his ruling, Judge Leon noted that the government had, in its submissions, indicated that the case against it had no merit because of: “the theoretical possibility that the NSA has collected a universe of metadata so incomplete that the program could not possibly serve its putative function.”

But Judge Leon was unimpressed by this line of argument from the government, noting drily: “Candor of this type defies common sense and does not inspire confidence.”

In a footnote he drew on musical history to underline his scepticism:

“To draw an analogy, if the NSA’s program operates the way the government suggests it does, then omitting Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Sprint [major telephone providers in the USA] from the collection [of data] would be like omitting John, Paul, and George from a historical analysis of the Beatles,” he wrote in his ruling.

“A Ringo-only database doesn’t make any sense, and I cannot believe the government would create, maintain, and so ardently defend such a system.”