NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has denounced the UK’s emergency surveillance bill, criticizing the distinct lack of public debate it encompassed and its heightened powers of intrusion.
During an exclusive interview in Moscow with the Guardian, the whistleblower suggested it was highly unusual for a state to process legislation so hastily other than at a time of acutely endangered national security.
"I mean we don't have bombs falling. We don't have U-boats in the harbour”, he emphasised. Yet suddenly this legislation has become an absolute priority. "It defies belief", he said.
Snowden found the duress with which the UK government processed the Data Retention and Investigation Powers Bill to be remarkable, comparing it to the Bush administration’s introduction of the Protect America Act in 2007. The Protect America Act was issued after the New York Times exposed a “warrantless wire-tapping programme” that was both illegal and “unconstitutional”, he stated.
The UK government claims Britain’s emergency bill will preserve UK law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ access to data that is vital for “protecting national security and preventing serious crime.” According to Snowden, the case the US administration built to justify the Protection of America Act is notably similar.
"I mean the NSA could have written this draft…They passed it under the same sort of emergency justification. They said we would be at risk. They said companies will no longer cooperate with us", he observed.
Westminster’s rhetoric of UK intelligence services’ diminished investigative powers in the face of potential terror threats is certainly reminiscent of the Bush administration’s 2007 claims. As Snowden notes, both governments cited intelligence services’ waning assistance from communications companies in a climate of looming terrorist threats as requiring swift and decisive action.
And like Britain's emergency surveillance legislation, the US' Protection of America Act 2007 was enacted in the absence of fair and open public debate.
Snowden’s observations reflect the concerns of myriad UK civil liberties groups who are acutely skeptical of the coalition's claims that the bill will not adversely compromise the privacy rights of Britons.
In an effort to secure cross-party backing from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister David Cameron vowed the legislation would not entail an extension of the state’s surveillance powers. But according to the Guardian, internal Home Office documents appear to indicate that British authorities’ surveillance powers will be expanded.
During his interview – a rare occurrence since he secured asylum in Russia almost a year ago - Snowden commented that the UK's emergency legislation marked “a significant change” in Britain’s surveillance landscape. He also questioned why the UK government were pushing the bill through shortly after a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling confirmed existing surveillance measures were overly intrusive.
"If these surveillance authorities are...so invasive the courts are actually saying they violate fundamental rights, do we really want to authorize them on a new, increased and more intrusive scale without any public debate?”
Reflecting on a year-long government silence following his exposure of the depth and scale of NSA-GCHQ oversight, Snowden stated that Britain’s new surveillance legislation effectively “looks like it was written by the National Security Agency”.
The UK government has justified the new legislation on the grounds of feared terrorist activities emanating from an alleged Al-Qaida member in Yemen who is linked to fundamentalist Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria.
The Tories deny the bill raises privacy concerns, stating it does not necessitate public debate. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have demonstrated hesitance in contributing to public debate on the matter, perhaps fearful of repercussions they might endure were a terrorist attack to occur.
Despite having expert knowledge of surveillance and the cross-border agencies that sustain it, Snowden’s comments are unlikely to phase many UK parliamentarians. While his revelations previously sparked inquiries waged by two separate parliamentary committees, the privacy rights advocate is yet to garner vocal support among UK MPs.
Campaigners opposed to the UK’s new surveillance bill argue it contains unprecedented power for Britain to demand foreign companies comply with warrants for interception. It also increases the British government’s leverage to acquire sensitive communications data, they caution.