Sustaining the security of personal and sensitive information has been an ongoing issue over the years.

The US National Security Agency (NSA) and its global surveillance apparatus has attracted vocal criticism. The scale and nature of the surveillance, exposed by Edward Snowden, has elicited much discussion of the relationship between intrusive government mass-surveillance and civil rights and the right to privacy. This discussion is nothing new.

Between 1954-1971 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ran a clandestine programme, called COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Programme), the aim of which was to “disrupt”, “discredit” and “neutralise” political organisations and dissidents. The programme was aimed at the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the New Left in the US.

The main target of COINTELPRO was pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. In August 1963, King gave his historical “I have a dream” speech. In his speech King called for equality between the African-American and white populations and the end of racial segregation.

The day after the speech, William Sullivan, the head of COINTELPRO, wrote: “In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech... We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

Six weeks after the speech FBI placed King under 24-hour electronic surveillance. The FBI proceeded to blackmail King threatening to publicise audiotapes of King’s sexual behaviour. Referring to the sex tapes, FBI wrote King:

“The American public... will know you for what you are — an evil, abnormal beast... You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

Antiwar disclosures

In 1971, a group of antiwar-activists broke into the FBI’s field office in Media and stole more than a thousand secret documents and leaked them to the press. These leaked documents revealed the existence of COINTELPRO. As a result of the disclosures, the programme was disbanded the same year.

The identities of the activists had remained secret until January 2014 when they decided to go public. One of them was John Raines, Professor of Theology at Temple University, who said: “I think that what we were trying to do back in 1971, Snowden is trying to do right now. And that is to give the information that citizens need to decide, as citizens, what their government should do and should not do.”

The documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the scale and nature of the NSA’s current clandestine surveillance programmes. The leaks verified that not only does the NSA occasionally use Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Microsoft and Apple to collect information on specific users, but has direct and inbuilt access to their servers as part of a programme called “PRISM”. It allows NSA officials to collect material such as search history, the content of emails and chats without warrant. It effectively gives the NSA the ability to monitor and store most activity and communication made over the Internet.

The top-secret documents reveal that the NSA collects information on the Internet activities of political activists and their visits to adult entertainment websites. The document states that the collected material is intended to be used to weaken the “authority” of activists.

According to Glenn Greenwald, the national security journalist who covered the Snowden leaks, “the objective of the NSA is literally the elimination of global privacy: ensuring that every form of human electronic communication. . . is collected, stored, analysed and monitored.”

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, echoes Greenwald’s assessment: “It’s important to remember that the NSA’s surveillance activities are anything but narrowly focused... the agency is collecting massive amounts of sensitive information about virtually everyone. Wherever you are, the NSA’s databases store information about your political views, your medical history, your intimate relationships and your activities online,” he concluded.

Implications for the press

All of this has had serious implications for the freedom of the press. On 10 October, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued its first ever report on press freedom in the US. The report details how journalists and their sources, such as government officials, are increasingly afraid to communicate in fear of being surveilled.

According to the CPJ, the Obama administration has subjected six government employees and two contractors, including Edward Snowden, to “criminal felony prosecutions... under the 1917 Espionage Act.” This is more than twice as many prosecutions as during all previous US administrations combined. Leonard Downie, Jr, former Washington Post executive editor and the author of the CJP report concludes:

“The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organisations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.”

For security, or control of the population?

“Security” against terrorism is universally invoked to justify increasing state surveillance and secrecy. At last month’s senate hearing, James Clapper, the head of the US intelligence community, stated that Snowden has severely undermined US national security.

Regardless of what one thinks of Snowden, it must be acknowledged that it seems quite hypocritical for the US to invoke the issue of security from terrorism while it not only consistently undertakes actions that increase the threat of terrorism, but itself carries out arguably the biggest terrorist operation in the world, namely the global assassination campaign. The effects of these policies are well understood in US intelligence circles, which anticipated that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would increase the threat of terrorist actions against the US. This is also the case with the Obama administration’s assassination campaign. In Pakistan alone, the US has reportedly killed between 2,534-3,642 Pakistanis, including between 168-200 children, in drone strikes executed almost entirely under Obama’s presidency.

The Obama administration has defended the right of the executive branch to without democratic or prior judicial review or oversight assassinate individuals suspected of being “terrorists”. On top of the issue of unreliable intelligence, which has resulted in the killing of unknown individuals, the US terrorist watch list ought to be regarded as an international scandal. In 1988, the US listed Nelson Mandela and his party the African National Congress as terrorists. Mandela was removed from the US terrorist watch list as late as in 2008.

Putting that aside, and looking at what Snowden revealed, it’s difficult to see how it could have harmed US security. In the same way as Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the activists who put an end to COINTELPRO the same year, Snowden merely informed the public about what their government is doing behind closed doors. The concern seems to be less about security and more about the control of information to protect the state from public scrutiny.

This is also evident in the treatment of Chelsea Manning by US authorities. Amnesty International’s Senior Director of International Law and Policy Widney Brown said in July 2013, commenting on the verdict against Manning, that “[t]he government’s priorities are upside down. The US government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence... Yet they decided to prosecute Manning who, it seems, was trying to do the right thing - reveal credible evidence of unlawful behaviour by the government.”

Finnish Intelligence: we need to bolster our surveillance capabilities

The chilling effect of mass surveillance also has broad, but less obvious implications for human interaction and communication. As our personal and professional information and communications are increasingly stored on the servers of a few giant corporations, such as Google and Facebook, it becomes nearly impossible to communicate privately.

In his statement before the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Edward Snowden said that the “surveillance of whole populations, rather than individuals, threaten to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time.”

Many violations of privacy go unnoticed or unchallenged because they are seen by the public as natural. It seems likely that voluntary subjection to and even support for the ongoing invasion of privacy is more common among young people who have grown up using Facebook and Twitter. There has been a cultural shift in the last decades and for many young people it feels natural to expose much of your private life online. This might make it more difficult to resist the attack on individual privacy.

Local securty reacts

Following the Snowden revelations, Finnish authorities reacted by saying that Finland should bolster its surveillance apparatus. Both the head of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (FSIS) and the Chief Director of the Police Force demanded more intrusive surveillance capabilities for the FSIS. This attitude is also reflected in Finland’s cyber security strategy, which states that “[a]ny possible legislative hurdles, restrictions and obligations related to data protection, as well as those arising from international obligations, that impede the obtainability, disclosure and exchange of information useful for effective cyber defence purposes, will be taken under review.”

In September 2013, WikiLeaks released Spy Files 3 – a trove of documents shedding light on the magnitude of the global intelligence industry. The documents include memos and trade brochures of private intelligence contractors. They also contain information on the travelling schedules of the companies’ representatives.

Personal info for all

Here in Finland personal information is a little more accessible than in many other countries. Everything from an individual’s income and tax records, to the source of the phone number that just contacted you, can be found easily. Oh, wondering who’s the owner of that car parked across the street? No worries, you can find out using the registration plate. All of this potentially sensitive information is freely available to any member of the public.

In fact, such accessibility was used recently in the robbery of peoples’ houses when their car registration was noted by thieves as they boarded cruise ships to Stockholm. The thieves then took advantage of the info at hand and robbed the passengers’ apartments whilst the residents were out of town.

Spy Files 3 reveals that Rudolf Winschuh, Partner Sales Manager of Utimaco Safeware AG (Utimaco) made a visit to Finland in June 2013. The visit was made one week prior to the statements by the Finnish authorities demanding more surveillance capacities. Utimaco has been implicated indirectly in the build-up of the surveillance apparatuses of Middle Eastern dictatorships.

Utimaco is a private intelligence contractor which provides interception systems for mobile operators and Internet service providers. Utimaco’s technology has been used by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and the former Tunisian dictatorship. In both of these cases, the company provided technology that enables the interception and storage of telephone and email communications.

In January 2014, the Finnish authorities were given the legal right to insert spying programmes on a criminal suspect’s computer. These programmes are marketed and sold to intelligence agencies, state authorities and others by private intelligence firms.

After the passing of this new legislation, the police can “contaminate computers”, according to Mikko Hyppönen, Chief Research Officer at F-Secure. “Internet service providers can be forced to install a spying programme,” which is disguised to the customer as a “software update”.

In October 2013, the Finnish police requested the Punk in Finland chat forum to turn over the information of some of its participants. The police requested information on individuals who had participated in a conversation regarding a demonstration to be held in Tampere on Independence Day. The police refused to reveal why the request was made. “It’s classified,” commented inspector Ari Luoto.

According to Finnish law, a police officer has the right to “obtain information that is necessary to prevent or solve a crime” without regard to corporate, insurance or bank secrecy. It seems there is no oversight or prior judicial review of this practice, which is very widely used, according to the police. The request by the police also comes with a gag order, which forbids the recipient from revealing the existence of the request.

We know about this specific incident because the PiF-forum ignored the obligation to maintain secrecy and publicised the letter from the police on its webpage. The police is currently investigating the PiF-forum for breaching the secrecy clause. This practice has some striking similarities with the infamous National Security Letter system in the US.

The Finnish authorities have also proceeded, against the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, to collect the fingerprints of all its citizens. The authorities have indicated that they would like to use this register in future criminal investigation. In Finland there has been a massive increase in the deployment of security cameras. In 2008, it was reported that Finland has the highest proportional amount of security cameras out of all European countries with the exception of Britain.

Legal History Professor Jukka Kekkonen (University of Helsinki) is concerned over the increased government surveillance of all kinds in the Western world during previous decades. “There has been a general tendency towards tightening control. Historical experience - and research - indicate that what lies behind this development is the growth of inequality in wealth and power.”

Johannes Hautavirta