‘Snooping’: the backlash begins

A new survey shows that 86 percent of Britons believe mass spying on citizens is wrong.

The poll, commissioned as part of a Future Intelligence report coincides with the premiere of a film about whistle blower Edward Snowden.

1984 predicted mass surveillance. In the 60s novels suggested that aliens in tripod towers would control us. Now we are doing it to ourselves. FI is calling for a political mandate and for surveillance to become an electoral issue in political manifestos.

The phone towers now watching our every move

In the documentary by Laura Poitras, Snowden warns that Britain’s listening service GCHQ is collecting even more data on ordinary citizens than the American NSA. Snowden says:

“In the UK there is the system of regulation where anything goes. They collect everything that might be interesting. It’s up to the government to justify why it needs this. It’s not up to you to justify why it doesn’t … This is where the danger is, when we think about … evidence being gathered against us but we don’t have the opportunity to challenge that in courts. It undermines the entire system of justice.” 

The survey, commissioned by cyber security company F-secure as part of an investigation by FI sister organisation, the Cyber Security Research Institute, into the state of officials snooping in Britain, proves that  public opinion is firmly against the collection of wholesale communications records.

“Orwell’s 1984 predicted mass surveillance. In the 1960s novels said that aliens in tripod towers would control us. Now we are doing it to ourselves. This is us opting to use technology that we don’t understand and we are not informed about. We use mobile phones that are now ID cards and personal surveillance devices. FI is calling for a political mandate and for surveillance to be an electoral issue in political manifestos, because the time has now come that we have to decide whether or not technology companies can make choices for us that affect our lives,” said Future Intelligence Editor Peter Warren.

The CSRI report – commissioned by F-Secure –  ‘Nothing to hide, nothing to fear,’ which released the findings of the survey pointed out that surveillance in the UK was now at an all-time high.

There are now 11 surveillance cameras for every member of the population, as against one spy for every 65 people in East Germany under the Stasi, and that Government surveillance was now affecting personal behaviour as journalists and other members of society respond to surveillance by abandoning mobile phones and beginning to take measures to escape surveillance.

Hackers now routinely swap phones at hacking events, behaviour that is highly likely to increase as the public at large become aware of the extent of surveillance.

The research for the report was carried out during the week when five men were arrested on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack on London’s Shepherds Bush police station.

Yet only 14% pf those questioned agreed that ‘The Government should have access to everyone’s personal data for the sake of public security’. Although protests against GCHQ’s activities have been muted compared with the reaction in Germany and the US , as reported earlier in FI.  This latest snapshot of public opinion clearly shows that opinion is hardening. A 2013 YouGov poll with Cambridge University recorded only 43% disapproval of the intelligence agencies conducting mass surveillance.


Poitras’s film tells the story of how Snowden contacted her through an encrypted email system, using the codename ‘Citizenfour’ which became the title of the documentary. ‘Citizenfour’ tells Snowden’s personal story from growing up in a military family in Fort Mead, Maryland to working as a contractor for the company Booz Allen Hamilton which supplies the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with the logs from millions of surveillance devices collecting data from phone calls, SMS text messages, emails and social media. It shows how the wholesale snooping started in the USA the day after the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in 2001.

Poitras includes in the film footage of former NSA chief Keith Alexander denying that the mass surveillance exists in front of Congressional hearings. Shes films the interviews Snowden gives to Brazil-based blogger Glenn Greenwald, and Ewan MacAskill of The Guardian in a Hong Kong hotel room before fleeing to Moscow where he is currently living as a political asylum-seeker with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills.

Travel ban

The Snowden documentary is the third in a trilogy by Laura Poitras examining the 9/11 legacy in American foreign and domestic policy. The two earlier films deal with the Western invasion of Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba where terrorist suspects are taken by ‘extraordinary rendition’ for imprisonment and interrogation without trial.

Poitras lives in Berlin, Germany, and decided not to travel to London for the UK premiere of ‘Citizenfour’ on advice from her lawyer, who feared she may be detained or even extradited to the United States for questioning about the part she played in revealing Snowden’s leaks. However she appeared on screen at the cinema in Chelsea’s upmarket King’s Road via live skype call from her Berlin apartment to rapturous applause.

Guardian  newspaper journalist Ewan MacAskill, who appears in the documentary, and his editor Alan Rusbridger were also in the audience and invited to rise for a standing ovation. It was the Guardian, with Germany’s Der Spiegel and The New York Times, that published details of the secret services abuses and collusion with technology companies. The questions in the Q and A session were all selected from the VIP guests and members of the public who had paid for their tickets were not invited to ask questions.

So it was an overwhelmingly supportive, almost triumphalist atmosphere – more like a religious revivalist rally than a documentary screening. Certainly no-one present was allowed to raise any question that would have conflicted with the mood: Isn’t Snowden a traitor being harboured by the enemy?  Would have certainly generated an interesting response and would have provided some important material to justify the value of what Snowden had done but such insight was lost in the general back-slapping.


The aura of a cult hero around Edward Snowden is ironic, since it is clear that he did not wish to become an international icon. Throughout the documentary Laura Poitras portrays him as a quiet, modest man. He repeatedly says “I’m not the story” and the sensitive camerawork and editing reveal in close-up that he is struggling with mix of emotions – anger that the service he loved is betraying citizens’ trust by snooping on the innocent, fear of being caught and punished, despair at leaving his family, friends and home country for the life of a fugitive. Poitras says she had to persuade him to be filmed in this way because whether he liked it or not he would become identified with ‘the story’.

laura_poitras (476 x 583)

Edward Snowden contacted film maker Laura Poitras to leak his official secrets. To hear Poitras on Snowden click here

“The reason why Ed Snowden tried to move away from the spotlight was because he wanted the coverage of his leaks to focus on the content – the many ways which he unmasked of spying on ordinary people through their everyday communications,” said Poitras.

These are some methods that were used – and may still be used – by the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ listening post:-

PRISM legally compels companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook to provide users’ data and Internet Service Providers to intercept Internet traffic going through their servers. PRISM is used to gather intelligence on foreigners, not US citizens.

Tempora is the gadget used by GCHQ to intercept messages flowing along fibre optic cables with the permission of the internet companies or the landing stations like BT’s outpost near Bude on Cornwall’s west coast, where transatlantic telecommunications cables come ashore.

Optic Nerve is a system used by GCHQ to spy on Yahoo webcam users, taking images via the camera on their phones, tablets or other devices.

QUANTUMINSERT is used by the NSA to inject malware into religious or suspected terrorism websites


Smurf – looks cute but steals your data

Smurfs is the codename for a set of spyware that is named after the blue cartoon characters on TV. Nosey Smurf can turn a phone into a remote microphone for listening, Tracker Smurf maps the target’s location, dreamy Smurf can remotely switch on a smartphone that has been turned off and Paranoid Smurf is the name of the spyware that masks the activities of the other smurfs.

Edgehill is a GCHQ program that decrypts encrypted messages. It also includes Humint (human intelligence) from moles recruited by the spy centre in technology companies to enable them to get the latest encryption techniques. Snowden’s leak indicated that by 2015 Edgehill would have decrypted all 15 Internet Service Providers and 300 Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Dishfire intercepts messages from mobile phone network providers to customers. So for example the intelligence agencies know when the phone user travels to another country. The NSA used it to track 1.5 million messages, and it was fully available to GCHQ, too.

Of course, unseen spying software is tricky to film and so naturally Laura Poitras was obliged to make the messenger, rather than the message, the subject of her documentary. At the London screening she acknowledged the debt she owes to the online community for enabling her to communicate safely with the whistleblower and other journalists through encryption services such as TAILS, TOR (The Onion Router) and Truecrypt. FI’s report on Surveillance Britain was commissioned by security company F-Secure. You can read the full report here:

‘Citizenfour’ is on general release in the USA and UK and you can watch a trailer on YouTube if you  click here