It has been about a month and half since the NSA and PRISM story broke, and we are now starting to see some of the political repercussions. As expected, they take longer to develop than news-headlines and knee-jerk Internet forum reactions, but the Snowden’s leaks will definitely have long term political effects.
Up until now, very much of the media attention has been on Snowden himself, his whistle-blower status, and his escape from the US. Although not that interesting in themselves, his movements have drawn some very intriguing lines, more clearly showing who’s in bed with who, and which countries are willing to stand up against the US. Snowden was more or less escorted out of Hong Kong, China, and welcomed to Russia, or at least not kicked out yet. The problem is, even if he has been offered asylum from Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, he cannot travel there. First of all, because the US has cancelled his passport, but maybe more importantly, he risks being captured mid-flight. That was made clear when Bolivian president Morales’ flight was forced down in Vienna, because other European countries had blocked their airspace on suspicion that Snowden was on board the plane.
That incident very clearly showed which countries are aligned with the Americans, and is now confirmed by the fact they did apologize. The Bolivian Foreign Minister confirmed that they had received apologies from Italy, Portugal, Spain and France. However, he wants to get to the heart of the matter, even though it is blatantly obvious who was behind the request to force down the plane. Furthermore, as a reaction against these European countries, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Uruguay have resolved to withdraw their diplomatic missions. That is a pretty strong signal, even though it might be temporary.
Finally, on Snowden, it was interesting to note that he has been nominated for the Nobel peace prize by Swedish professor Stefan Svallfors who notes that “‘I was just following orders’ [can never be] claimed as an excuse for acts contrary to human rights and freedoms”. He continues; awarding the prize to Snowden would “help to save the Nobel Peace Prize from the disrepute incurred by the hasty and ill-conceived decision to award US President Barack Obama [the] 2009 award.” Ouch! That has to sting!
EU political effects
In addition to the four countries who closed their airspace for Morales’ flight, it is clear that more have been accomplices of the US and NSA. UK’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) have eagerly been collecting data from Internet fibre cables, and is now facing legal challenges from the UK charity Privacy International.
Signals have also been collected in Germany, although here it is less clear whether German intelligence organizations have been in on the game or not. Even the interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich is not able to explain exactly what has been going on, and apparently he has a gag-order from the US. Chancellor Angela Merkel seems more ambiguous, on the one side urging people to wait for US’ investigation, but also calling for stronger EU data protection laws, and at the same time bringing sanity and common sense to the discussion with the quote: “Just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean you should do it”.
Meanwhile, on EU level, the European Parliament has voted for a resolution to 1) let their Civil Liberties Committee launch an inquiry into the PRISM scandal (with a report due towards the end of the year); 2) warn other member states, including UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland, who have been running similar programs; 3) reconsider the data sharing of air-traffic passenger information and SWIFT banking transfer with the US; 4) and offer stronger protection for whistle-blowers like Snowden. Several of these points echo similar demands by the EU Pirate Parties about a month ago.
US political effects
On US side, we’ve also seen the start of some interesting cases: Several groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have filled legal actions which seek to stop the NSA mass surveillance. In addition to the EPIC case, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a lawsuit, backed by an unusual coalition of rights activists, church leaders and drug and gun rights advocates. It will probably take a long time before we see any form of outcome, or even response to these cases, but they have at least made the required move. As an example of long it can take, EFF supported the filing of a class action lawsuit in 2008, and just recently did a federal court judge reject the U.S. government’s latest attempt to dismiss the case (so it is now finally allowed start).
Just as interesting was the recent US Congressional hearing and questioning of the NSA officials James Cole, Robert S Litt and John Inglis. They revealed that the PRISM program had the capability to analyse social graph relations as much as three hops away from every person. This is significant, first, because it was previously assumed that they only had data and capabilities to perform only one (your friends) or two hops (the friends of your friends). Secondly, in an massively networked “social” world, three hops will include a lot of people. When six degrees of separation was estimated to link any two people in the world some fifty years ago, they did not have Facebook where everybody had thousands of “friends”. Now, it is estimated that any Facebook user can be linked with less than five hops. In other words, within three hops, most of us will be linked to some “bad” people. If those links are to be used against us, we will all be found suspicious.
Also worth noticing from the hearing was the comment from congressman Frank James Sensenbrenner. He was the author of the controversial 2001 Patriot Act, which probably has enabled some parts of the PRISM program. He told the NSA officials that unless they rein in their spying efforts, they would risk losing the legal provisions which enabled it. Although it is hard to believe it will come to that, it is still a quote to take note of. (Or, depending on how cynical you feel, yet another proof that you can never trust a politician).