Opinion | Columnists

Transparency is non-negotiable

The US government constructing a ubiquitous surveillance apparatus aimed at all of the world’s citizens has profound consequences

  • By Glenn Greenwald
  • Published: 20:00 July 8, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: AFP
  • A new National Security Agency (NSA) data centre is seen in Bluffdale, Utah.

I’ve written an article on NSA surveillance for the Sunday edition of O Globo, the large Brazilian newspaper based in Rio de Janeiro. The article is headlined (translated) “US spied on millions of emails and calls of Brazilians”, and I co—wrote it with Globo reporters Roberto Kaz and Jose Casado. The rough translation of the article into English is here. The main page of Globo’s website lists related NSA stories: here.

As the headline suggests, the crux of the main article details how the NSA has, for years, systematically tapped into the Brazilian telecommunication network and indiscriminately intercepted, collected and stored the email and telephone records of millions of Brazilians. The story follows an article in Der Spiegel last week, written by Laura Poitras and reporters from that paper, detailing the NSA’s mass and indiscriminate collection of the electronic communications of millions of Germans. There are many more populations of non—adversarial countries which have been subjected to the same type of mass surveillance net by the NSA: indeed, the list of those which haven’t been are shorter than those which have. The claim that any other nation is engaging in anything remotely approaching indiscriminate worldwide surveillance of this sort is baseless.

As those two articles detail, all of this bulk, indiscriminate surveillance aimed at populations of friendly foreign nations is part of the NSA’s “FAIRVIEW” programme. Under that programme, the NSA partners with a large US telecommunications company, the identity of which is currently unknown, and that US company then partners with telecoms in the foreign countries. Those partnerships allow the US company access to those countries’ telecommunications systems, and that access is then exploited to direct traffic to the NSA’s repositories. Both articles are based on top secret documents provided by Edward Snodwen; O Globo published several of them.

The vast majority of the Guardian US’s revelations thus far have concerned NSA domestic spying: the bulk collection of telephone records, the PRISM programme, Obama’s presidential directive that authorises domestic use of cyber — operations, the Boundless Informant data detailing billions of records collected from US systems, the serial falsehoods publicly voiced by top Obama officials about the NSA’s surveillance schemes, and most recently, the bulk collection of email and internet metadata records for Americans. Future stories in the Guardian US will largely continue to focus on the NSA’s domestic spying.

But contrary to what some want to suggest, the privacy rights of Americans aren’t the only ones that matter. That the US government — in complete secrecy — is constructing a ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed not only at its own citizens, but all of the world’s citizens, has profound consequences. It erodes, if not eliminates, the ability to use the internet with any remnant of privacy or personal security. It vests the US government with boundless power over those to whom it has no accountability. It permits allies of the US — including aggressively oppressive ones — to benefit from indiscriminate spying on their citizens’ communications. It radically alters the balance of power between the US and ordinary citizens of the world. And it sends an unmistakable signal to the world that while the US very minimally values the privacy rights of Americans, it assigns zero value to the privacy of everyone else on the planet.

This development — the construction of a worldwide, ubiquitous electronic surveillance apparatus — is self—evidently newsworthy, extreme, and dangerous. It deserves transparency. People around the world have no idea that all of their telephonic and internet communications are being collected, stored and analysed by a distant government. But that’s exactly what is happening, in secrecy and with virtually no accountability. And it is inexorably growing, all in the dark. At the very least, it merits public understanding and debate. That is now possible thanks solely to these disclosures.

One brief note on the Guardian is merited here: I’ve been continuously amazed by how intrepid, fearless and committed the Guardian has been to reporting these NSA stories as effectively and aggressively as possible. The Guardian’s editors have never flinched in reporting these stories, have spared no expense in pursuing them, have refused to allow vague and baseless government assertions to suppress any of the newsworthy revelations, have devoted extraordinary resources to ensure accuracy and potency, and have generally been animated by exactly the kind of adversarial journalistic ethos that has been all too lacking over the last decade or so (see this Atlantic article highlighting the role played by the Guardian US’s editor—in—chief, Janine Gibson).

I don’t need to say any of this, but do so only because it’s so true and impressive: they deserve a lot of credit for the impact these stories have had. To underscore that: because we’re currently working on so many articles involving NSA domestic spying, it would have been weeks, at least, before we would have been able to publish this story about indiscriminate NSA surveillance of Brazilians. Rather than sit on such a newsworthy story — especially at a time when Latin America, for several reasons, is so focused on these revelations — they were enthused about my partnering with O Globo, where it could produce the most impact. In other words, they sacrificed short—term competitive advantage for the sake of the story by encouraging me to write this story with O Globo. I don’t think many media outlets would have made that choice, but that’s the kind of journalistic virtue that has driven the paper’s editors from the start of this story.

This has been a Guardian story from the start and will continue to be. Snowden came to us before coming to any other media outlet, and I’ll continue to write virtually all NSA stories right. But the O Globo story will resonate greatly in Brazil and more broadly in Latin America, where most people had no idea that their electronic communications were being collected in bulk by this highly secretive US agency.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

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