Undigested Snowden

These pieces of research indicate a pattern of behavioural change that dampens dissent and resistance to overbearing power, both of which are hallmarks of an active democratic citizenry.

Paul Lashmar
31 May 2016

Eyes watching your privacy. Shutterstock/Ziben. All rights reserved.The unexpected findings from the openDemocracy/St Andrews research that British political activists from a diverse range of campaigns, while recognising the import of Snowden’s revelations, have not found a coherent response, existentially, practically or technologically to the threat of mass surveillance are both fascinating and depressing.  

This, I suspect, confirms philosopher Zygmunt Bauman and friends’ proposition that the implications of the Snowden affair are so major that few have had the opportunity to fully evaluate their potential impact on the political, cultural and public sphere.[1]

Ramsay, Ramsay and Marsden’s research touches on the ‘chilling effect’ of the burgeoning surveillance state on the motivation to express dissent or make those in power accountable. Their research suggests only a minority of activists have felt the chilling effect. The majority took the view that Snowden tended to confirm their suspicions. This resonates with my own research with journalists, No More Sources?, published last week. Those who are used to the idea of being under surveillance are less likely to reduce their activity. What it worrying is that there is growing evidence that the likelihood of surveillance is chilling those who are not used to the idea of daily Panoptic surveillance, and reducing their willingness to take civic action.

Back in October 2013, as an investigative journalist now academic, I wrote a post-Snowden article for openDemocracy, also called “No more sources”, looking at the likely impact of GCHQ’s extraordinary capabilities on the relationship between journalists and their sources. I pointed out that the problem was that, in the past, without being able to give a 100% guarantee, the journalist could assure their confidential sources that they could avoid the attention of employers, government, intelligence or police, providing they took some quite simple precautions. That was how we investigative journalists upheld the much lauded Fourth Estate model of journalism. I then wondered whether, after Snowden, we could any more provide succour to our sources at all, as the technology in the hands of intelligence is now so all intrusive.

That 2013 article spurred me into the research which has just been published in Journalism Practice. For this paper I contacted a range of journalists and academics and conducted detailed semi-structured interviews. At the core are twelve leading investigative journalists with at least two from each of the Five Eyes countries. Each had extensive experience of reporting on national security, as I have had myself. National security is perhaps one of the more difficult beats in journalism, given the intelligence agencies’ penchant for secrecy. These journalists rely on sources to carry out their work. The paper concludes: “That there is clear evidence of a paradigmatic shift in journalist-source relations as those interviewed regard Five Eyes mass surveillance as a most serious threat to the fourth estate model of journalism as practiced in Western democratic countries.” At a time when the intelligence-industry-academic complex has rapidly expanded, there is less fourth estate accountability.

The interviewees’ responses to Snowden were varied. Several interviewees, for example Christopher Hird, formerly editor of the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, questioned whether we could protect sources at all. Gavin MacFadyen, director of the UK’s Centre or Investigative Journalism argued that the Snowden revelations meant the ability of journalists to protect sources is now critical: “There has never been anything like this, except in the worst totalitarian states, compared to the threat to free inquiry now”. He believes everything changed with Snowden, and journalism will not be same. “No, never” he said. Duncan Campbell, the journalist who first revealed the existence of GCHQ 30 years ago was more measured. He counselled it was important to keep things in perspective and only a relatively small number of journalists are likely to run up against surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) network:

The impact of Snowden’s revelations should not really be overstated for journalism, because the most critical aspect relates to the conduct of the intelligence.

He added:

There are a huge number of stories, from tracing contamination in food to medical scams to corruption in business, where there’s not the remotest possibility that the extensive capability of NSA and GCHQ, and those they share with, is going to be allowed anywhere near those [journalists] who might seek to interdict the source of this journalism.

All recognised that Snowden revelations had had a chilling effect on investigations. My interviewees from the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada all reported intelligence and government clamping down on sources. Barack Obama might have been critical of the national security state that emerged under George Bush, but his administration has since greatly increased the pressure on journalists over their sources with many arrests.[2] Another interviewee, the New York Times national security reporter, Scott Shane, noted that some intelligence agencies, which had been developing a discourse, have recently clammed up:

The big factor in the last few years has been the rash of leak prosecutions, as you know, depending on how to define them, three cases where people were prosecuted in leaking classified information in all US history, up to 2009. Since 2009 there have been seven, I believe. That has an enormous impact on people’s willingness to talk.

In essence these journalists report that covering national security with a critical approach has become a great deal harder. The chilling effect is reducing the number of insiders prepared to be confidential sources. So at a time when the intelligence-industry-academic complex has rapidly expanded, there is less fourth estate accountability.

The intelligence community made great play of the dangers of Snowden’s revelations in June 2013 and thereafter, but bear in mind not even 7,000 of a cache of 1.7m documents have been published so far. The latest Snowden documents are dated 2012. This means our understanding of what Five Eyes intelligence is and can do is at least four years out of date.

Chilling effects and unprecedented powers

Within the surveillance model, there is an implicit desire to change behaviours. It is one thing to want to change criminal behaviours: but it does not stop there. What my research and Ramsay, Ramsay and Marsden’s research has in common is that what we are seeing here is the ‘chilling effect’ creeping across civil society. In their report, the Ramsay, Ramsay and Marsden team do not accept that the public blindly trust the intelligence agencies but are clearly astonished that there is no concerted response even from activists. Why this lack of action? The doyen of intelligence studies, the American academic Loch K. Johnson said in one of his famous propositions on strategic intelligence: 

In times of military crisis, a nation tends to rally behind its leader in favour of an efficient intelligence and military response to the threat, placing at a lower level of concern question of civil liberties and intelligence accountability.[3]

Perhaps that’s the answer. Fifteen years of a war on terror has meant the public are prepared to sacrifice proper accountability of one of the most powerful state tools for population control we have ever seen, in return for promises of security. Indeed GCHQ is about to be given unprecedented powers by Teresa May under the Investigatory Powers Bill.

I suggest there is a collective cognitive dissonance between the public attitude to intelligence oversight and what history teaches us. Without any sign of connection we, the citizens, are watching the real Undercover Cops issue play out, even a fictionalised version on TV. This was a national security operation in which police officers went uncover into activist groups and the cops’ actions were certainly immoral and possibly illegal. No one seems to connect this with MI5 or the other intelligence agencies. The Met have been supposedly under much greater accountability than the intelligence agencies – so what was going on there?

Over in the private sector we have just seen a number of major construction and other companies collapse before a class action by blacklisted workers, forced to apologise and to pay massive damages. I was involved in 1989 in breaking the story of the Economic League blacklisting. That it secretly continued in different forms until as late as 2009 is truly shocking. Did MI5 not know or benefit?

Government and intelligence lobby responses to concerns are to toss concepts of privacy aside and assure us that accountability is effective. The current head of GCHQ Robert Hannigan argued in the Financial Times that ‘privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions’.[4]

With journalists reduced in their oversight efficacy, who then is left to guard the guards? Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is the main intelligence oversight mechanism. Yet in its report of February 2013, immediately pre-Snowden, there was no mention of bulk collection of metadata. It was Snowden’s leaks that revealed that GCHQ was engaged in mass data collection. It appears that they did not know of the Tempora programme. Were they fools or knaves? The then chairman was Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP whose reputation was severely damaged shortly afterwards in the ‘cash for access’ TV sting.

Play with privacy and you are playing with the deep-seated primordial instincts on which our collective and societal arrangements are based. Within the surveillance model, what concerns me is an implicit desire to change behaviours. It is one thing to want to change criminal behaviours: but it does not stop there. In one of the first research reports on the ‘chilling effect’, PEN International, the American literary and human rights organization reported in January 2015 that writers were admitting they were curtailing their professional behaviour as a result of the Snowden revelations.[5]

Growing literature

There is a growing literature on the psychological tensions between privacy and surveillance. The psychoanalyst Joshua Cohen is particular good on the psychological importance of privacy in his 2013 book.[6] The UK academic, Andy McStay has insight in his book, the 2015 text, Privacy and Philosophy.[7] Even more telling, this year there have been a number of empirical research reports that suggest the possibility of mass surveillance is having a chilling effect on dissent and accountability.

A paper by Elizabeth Stoycheff published in March in the Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly found that "the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion.”

"What this research shows is that in the presence of surveillance, our country's most vulnerable voices are unwilling to express their beliefs online”.[8]

Oxford academic Jon Penny’s paper, discusses the results of the first empirical study providing evidence of the regulatory ‘chilling effects’ of Wikipedia users associated with online government surveillance. Penny looks at the self-censorship that comes along with broad surveillance and this study is among the first to demonstrate, using either Wikipedia data or web traffic data more generally­, how government surveillance and similar actions impact online activities, including access to information and knowledge online.[9]

In culmination all these pieces of research are indicating a pattern of behavioural change that dampens dissent and resistance to overbearing power, both of which are hallmarks of an active democratic citizenry. What this suggests to me is that that the terrorists have won another unexpected if particular blow against liberal democracy as it is superseded by a security state.

[1] Bauman, Zygmunt., Bigo, Didier., Esteves, Paulo., Guild, Eslpeth., Jabri, Vivenne., Lyon, David. and Walker. R.B.J. 2014. “After Snowden: Rethinking the Impact of Surveillance.” International Political Sociology  8: 121–144.

[2] Stein, J (2013) ‘The End of National Security Reporting?’ IEE Security & Privacy.  July/Aug. 64-68.

[3] Gill, P., Marrin, S. and Phythian, M. (eds.) (2009) Intelligence Theory: key questions and debates. pg 51. Abingdon: Routledge.

[4] Hannigan, R. (2014) “The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice.” Financial Times. 3 Nov 2013.

[5]PEN (2015) “Global Chilling: The impact of mass surveillance on International Writers”, PEN America Centre. Pub: Jan 2015. 

[6] Cohen, J. (2013) The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark. London: Granta.

[7] McStay, A. (2014). Privacy and Philosophy, New York: Peter Lang.

[8] Stoycheff, E (2016) “Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring”, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly June 2016 93: 296-311, first published on March 8, 2016

[9] Penny, J. (2016) “Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use”,  Berkeley Technology Law Journal. Please note a final version will be published later in 2016. 

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