In the 21st century surveillance state, we are all terrorists

Intimidating reporters, destroying their computers, detaining them under false pretenses -- it's all in a day's work for today's modern spy agency.

Image credit: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

“You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

These chilling words were delivered by an unnamed official of Her Majesty’s Secret Service to UK Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, shortly before he was ordered to destroy every computer and hard drive containing files given to the Guardian by Edward Snowden.

This encounter happened more than a month ago. Rusbridger only revealed it yesterday after British secret service detained David Miranda at Heathrow Airport under Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000, the British equivalent of the Patriot Act.

That law allows UK officials to detain suspected terrorists for up to 9 hours while denying them contact with anyone else. And that’s exactly what they did. The Brits also confiscated all of Miranda’s digital gear – which, presumably, contained more documents from Edward Snowden.

Miranda is the boyfriend of journalist Glenn Greenwald. (I assume you’ve heard of him.) He was apparently acting as a courier between Greenwald, based in Brazil, and his reporting partner in the Snowden Affair, film-maker Laura Poitras, who lives in Berlin.

Aside from that we know very little. But a few things have now become crystal clear.

* If there was any doubt that US and UK spooks are performing 24/7 surveillance on Greenwald, Poitras, and anyone else involved with the leaks, there isn’t now. How else would they know who Miranda was and when he would be on British soil?

* The UK is defending the seizure by claiming Miranda was “in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism.” The documents that were in Miranda’s possession were encrypted. So how, exactly, would UK officials know what’s inside them?

* Clearly Greenwald et al have no faith that any electronic communications can be trusted, and have resorted to face-to-face exchanges of data – a kind of global sneakernet. Following the voluntary closures of two encrypted email services last week, and Google’s declaration that Gmail users “have no legitimate expectation of privacy,” this drives yet another nail into the coffin of so-called private communications.

I think even lifelong British bureaucrats understand that destroying the Guardian’s hardware did nothing to destroy the data that lives on it. Encrypted copies abound – if not in England, then certainly in Russia, Germany, and Brazil.

No, they did it to send a message. And that message is, Your debate is inconsequential. We control the horizontal and the vertical. We’ll do what we want, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us.

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