UK Destroys Hard Drives, Seize Laptops in "Futile" Effort to Stop NSA Leaks
August 21, 2013 8:59 AM
(Source: Warner Bros.)
The press isn't quite so free in the Queen's country
With the 250th anniversary of the United States of America's war to win its freedom from the oppressive British monarchy but a little more than a decade away, the recent developments in the case of
U.S. National Security Agency
secrets leaker Edward Snowden
remind us how far the U.S.'s freedoms are, even after decades of efforts by some Americans to
erode the Constitution
I. For Now Media is Ahead of Gov't Oppression, Thanks to Digital Tech
A recent piece
in one of England's top newspapers,
, reveals that the publication -- which was the primary recipient of Mr. Snowden's trove of documents on classified spying efforts on law-abiding citizens -- has suffered numerous cases of harassment at the hands of UK secret police in recent months, following the
initial publication of a partial analysis NSA files
The report describes how UK authorities threatened to take the publication to court, and eventually settled with a forced destruction of the hard drives with the Snowden documents on them (of course
implies it had ample backup thumb drive and paper copies):
And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. "We can call off the black helicopters," joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.
Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age.
The publication points out that such seizures would likely be far too embarrassing -- and likely not allowed in the first place due to their illegality in the U.S. In the U.S., reporters -- including those who do whistleblowing reporting related to the government -- are protected by the Constitution, which enshrines freedom of the press (for example the Obama administration received heavy pushback over its
decision to spy on the
). In the UK there are some laws that protect the press, but overall if the government badly wants something, there's no such prime directive for members of the media to shield themselves with.
UK agents destroyed
's hard drives after the Snowden files were published.
[Image Source: Corbis]
In the past, this would make the UK media much more weak and vulnerable from a exposé reporting perspective, however
raises an interesting point. In a digital era industrial country that allows free press, strong legal protects are no longer as crucial. As long as the government stops short of charging reporters involved in such publications or forcing the shuttering of the publications themselves, they are stuck in a losing game of cat and mouse with the media.
II. Ubiquitous Surveillance Could Spell an End to the Free Press in the U.S., UK
Most recently UK agents -- likely with the
Government Communications Headquarters
(GCHQ), Britain's NSA counterpart --
detained a Guardian employee, David Miranda, at an airport for 8+ hours
under the pretense that they were investigating a "terrorism" incident.
Glenn Greenwald (left) and David Miranda [Image Source: Reuters]
Mr. Miranda, the boyfriend of Glenn Greenwald -- the primary reporter on the NSA story -- had been serving as a research on the Snowden documents and the public's reaction to them. During the detention he had his laptop, smartphone, DVDs, and USB sticks seized and was forced to surrender his passwords to the devices. However,
writes that the seizures were the failings of a weak and panicked government, unable to keep up with the empowerment of the digital era. It remarks:
We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won't do it in London. The seizure of Miranda's laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald's work.
The GCHQ and NSA's
threatens to be
the high tech poison
to this newfound digital freedom.
reporter, Alan Rusbridger, writes:
The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like "when".
We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint. Those colleagues who denigrate Snowden or say reporters should trust the state to know best (many of them in the UK, oddly, on the right) may one day have a cruel awakening. One day it will be their reporting, their cause, under attack.
That's a pretty powerful message. And even in the U.S. -- where the press is safer -- it rings true, given the
ongoing efforts of some judges and politicians
to erode the protections of the Constitution.
"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet. A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis
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