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A debate has started about the code of conduct that will define the preservation of public liberties. The courageous Edward Snowden has achieved his goal to a large extent. His action should also contribute to a reflection on whistleblowers and their protection

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 12, United Nations, 1948)

The revelations of Edward Snowden, the courageous whistleblower and former contractor for the NSA (National Security Agency) which is responsible for surveillance, confirmed, supported by evidence, what all the heads of state have always known: the United States has undertaken a vast program of interception of telephone and electronic communications on a worldwide scale, making no distinction between friendly or hostile countries. Their ambition is to know everything that goes on around the planet and they are on their way to achieving it through the modern technology that governs our lives and which we cannot do without. In short, if we want to use credit cards, telephones, cell phones, computers, the internet, and the other tools that facilitate our daily lives, we must pay the price. And the scale of the revelations has contributed to the idea that it is a technological inevitability.


Because no one is safe from this project. Thus, thanks to the cooperation of Internet giants (Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype…) and the complicity of countries that have elected to participate in the system, telephone calls, email correspondence, sms, bank transactions, online purchases, websites visited, books checked out from the library, travel, cell phone roaming charges, unanswered calls, and electronic address lists are intercepted and stocked in an immense site in Utah that covers an area three times the surface of the Pentagon. There, the intercepted data – metadata – can be used and analyzed without your knowledge, and even without the intervention of any judicial authority.

These revelations concerning the American surveillance system follow on the heels of the Wikileaks affair that exposed a host of diplomatic documents of the State Department. Divulged by Julian Assange and a group of “anti-secrecy” activists who define themselves as the people’s intelligence agents with a mission to divulge secrets that those in power wish to hide, the documents analyzed and published by the world press embarrassed the American government to the point where Hilary Clinton went on an apology tour to minimize revelations that concerned mainly Afghanistan and Iraq. One could say 1-all! They know everything about us, but we will know everything about them. This is simplistic reasoning, because the asymmetry is flagrant.


Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are in hiding, hunted and liable to prosecution, while the boss of the NSA and his peers go free. The latter meticulously modified existing laws in the aftermath of September 11 and put in place a legal arsenal legitimizing this type of general surveillance, while whistleblowers are unfortunately still far from gaining acceptance by the powers that be or being granted any protection.

No, the cursor is not on the right side and, in any case, one cannot prevent breaches of individual liberties by keeping an eye on the authorities. Invasion of privacy cannot be traded for more democracy because it is unjustifiable and non-negotiable.

Only those in the know – including governments – knew. The public, even if it did suspect something, was literally flabbergasted by the scope of what was revealed. Secret services everywhere were created in order to carry out illegal or immoral activities that governments cannot take upon themselves and for which they do not wish to be held accountable. And they cannot be prosecuted for such activities since they are protected by state secrecy or defense secrecy. What was shocking was that one thought that only the enemy was targeted, for reasons of national security. These revelations show that surveillance has become a mass phenomenon, that we have entered the Big Brother era and can find out everything about everyone. In short, this fearsome intelligence weapon has become indiscriminate, spares no one, and can turn against us.


A debate has started, which will be largely public, about the code of conduct that will define and position the cursor on the preservation of public liberties. The courageous Edward Snowden has therefore already achieved his goal to a large extent. His action should also contribute to a reflection on whistleblowers and their protection.

But this initial scandal, the massive breach of privacy perpetrated against millions of individuals principally for the benefit of the United States, has been followed by another. It soon became clear that this vast web of massive intrusion was enabled by the docile cooperation of governments which today take umbrage – or pretend to take umbrage – in order to save face. Revealing that Mrs. Merkel’s cell phone, and that of several other heads of state, was being listened to sends a double message. To some, that enough is enough, don’t go too far, and to the others: See? Me too!

All these revelations show the scope of the cooperative process that accompanied the implementation of this vast network of surveillance. Certainly, it benefited mostly the United States, but thanks to the complicity of the heads of those governments that present themselves as victims today. The half-heartedness of their protestations is due to the fact that they might be reminded of their involvement and should therefore avoid adding fuel to the fire. Moreover, all those governments are embarrassed, because Snowden has until now revealed only a tiny portion of the documents in his possession and the destructive potential of what remains has still to be assessed. Reactions are prudent because they could easily be contradicted or ridiculed.


When the American secret services wrongly suspected Edward Snowden of travelling in the presidential plane of Moralès, the president of Bolivia, in an attempt to flee to Latin America at the first challenge, four heads of state (of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal) banned the plane from their air space and therefore prevented it from refueling, blocking it in Austria, where a meticulous search was carried out. This speaks volumes about the degree of subservience of those governments which, in all logic, should instead have thanked Edward Snowden for informing them of their misfortunes.

It is a cruel reality. One country, together with several other beneficiaries – in fact, an Anglo-Saxon community – has conceived the ambition to achieve planetary surveillance in real time, and by stocking the information thus collected for use at a later stage is able to crosscheck and compare the data to profile any individual in time and space. Invoking its strategy for the “war on terror,” modifying existing laws to enable ever more intrusion and secrecy, enrolling allied countries in this project, the United States has succeeded in creating an immense surveillance network which has turned against those that had accepted to take part in it. Caught red-handed, the various governments must face public opinion.

The American position is easier to manage: reassure American citizens that they are not concerned by the surveillance and that these measures, which only target foreigners, are meant to protect them. This message is not well received and President Obama has had to make some concessions on form, not on the principle of data collection but on how it is used. But regarding substance, he is behind the American project. Thus, in an interview for the German television program Zdf (on 18 January 2014) he drove the message home: “Our intelligence agencies, like German intelligence agencies and every intelligence agency out there, will continue to be interested in the government intentions of countries around the world. That’s not going to change. And there is no point in having an intelligence service if you are restricted to the things that you can read in the New York Times or Der Spiegel. The truth of the matter is that by definition the job of intelligence is to find out: Well, what are folks thinking? What are they doing?” They also have to reassure friendly presidents that they will not be peering through the keyhole of their bedrooms and that they will not tap their cell phones. After all, we are well-mannered people… But such promises are binding only on those to whom they are made.

European governments are in a more delicate position. They must protest. But not too much, since their part in the project would soon be pointed out. For the same reason, they cannot claim to have been duped, because everything they gave up was given willingly. Their backs are to the wall and they would like their citizens to forget that they voluntarily gave away vast amounts of their personal data to the USA in exchange for negligible reciprocity. Any citizen would be handcuffed, thrown into a cell and accused of jeopardizing national security for less than that. All of this was decided in high places and has certainly been confirmed several times over. An enquiry should be opened on how such important decisions can be taken unbeknownst to all.

But it is a safe bet to say that this will not happen.

* Translated from French for Pambazuka News by Julia Monod.

** Michel Rogalski is the Director of Recherches internationales
This column is produced in partnerhip with the magazine Recherches internationales. Numerous academics and researchers contribute to the magazine, which examines the important questions that confront today’s world, the challenges posed by globalization, the solidarity struggles that develop and are increasingly inseparable from what is happening in every country.



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