[As ever, this is also on the BBC News website for your delectation and delight]
In the late 1970’s the United States was still recovering from Watergate, the scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign after revelations of a dirty-tricks campaign against his political rivals which involved illegal surveillance.
Partly in response to the crisis Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, limiting the president’s freedom to monitor US citizens without a warrant while providing a fair degree of freedom to bug foreigners or the agents of foreign powers when they were on US soil.
The goal was to strike a balance between people’s freedom to go about their daily lives unobserved and unhindered, and the need to investigate serious crime, stop terrorism and keep those same people safe.
Finding the restrictions rather too onerous in the atmosphere following the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, President Bush allowed the National Security Agency to monitor phone calls and other communications from US citizens believed to have a connection to al Qaeda without going to the trouble of getting a warrant.
And when the legality of this ‘warrantless wiretapping’ was challenged he persuaded Congress to amend FISA by passing the Protect America Act, which became law on August 5th.
It is the latest piece in a jigsaw of new laws, regulations and interpretations of existing laws and even the US Constitution which, taken together, provide a legal basis for the most extensive programme of domestic and international surveillance ever undertaken by a government.
And over the years to come its coverage, both electronic and non-electronic, will extend to millions or even billions of people, few of whom will have any real connection to terror or even criminality.
The US is not alone in wanting to collect this sort of information, of course. EU governments want phone companies and ISPs to retain information on their customers for months or even years so that police and the secret services can have access to it when investigating terrorist offences.
But even hardline countries like the UK only want to keep what is called ‘traffic information’, a list of websites visited or emails sent and received. Nobody is suggesting that the content of every email or the data entered on every web form should be retained or monitored.
The US authorities will not be so reticent, we can be sure.
Coupled with the vast increases in network speed, data storage capacities and computer processing power, the well-funded National Security Agency will soon be able to read and perhaps even store every email or instant message that crosses over a US-based or owned network.
And the resulting databases will be used for purposes far broader than the stated goal of countering terrorism and keeping the US safe from attack, because once the data has been acquired and stored and collated there will be so many other useful things to do with it.
Back in 2000 the European Parliament reported that data gathered using the Echelon covert surveillance programme, which incidentally features heavily in the new CIA thriller ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, was being used for industrial espionage by US firms.
We can be sure that new systems will also be exploited for the commercial as well as the political advantage of the US, although the target may in future
be China rather than Europe, reflecting the shifting balance of the world’s economy.In light of the wholesale surveillance of online activities, putting information about my friends and business contacts onto Facebook seems rather tame, but knowing what is going on should encourage us all to take a more cautious approach to what we say and do online.
Reading about the new US laws and the extensions to RIPA induces a state of network paranoia, where I’m convinced that everything I type is being sent to the NSA, and wonder whether the little camera in my laptop is even now secretly transmitting an image of my furrowed brow to the secret police.
But I’ll get over it.
As we all know, it is impossible to live in a state of constant suspicion, and we will adapt to this new reality just as we have adapted to the presence of CCTV cameras on the streets and in the shopping malls where we spend so much of our time.
I’m writing this in a café, and looking up I can see the clear plastic dome of a camera set inconspicuously in the ceiling, watching me as I type. My phone is sitting next to me, telling anyone with access to the cellular network that I’m here too. And I’ve just told Twitter where to I am so that my friends can find me.
It may not seem worth worrying if the NSA, CIA, FBI and every other secret agency in the world wants to join the party.
But it does matter.
I can choose to live without a mobile, avoid cafes that insist on spying on their customers and stop using Twitter. I can campaign against the local authority’s decision to install CCTV in my town, argue with my local MP about the limits of the state’s right to watch what I’m doing, and influence the debate in this country or even more widely in Europe.
But I have no control, influence or even clear understanding of what the government of a supposedly friendly superpower is doing with the information it gleans from Google, Facebook, Linden Labs, Yahoo!, MSN, Apple and the many other US corporations that service my online life.
Perhaps we need to think again about our reliance on the US for our network services, if the government there persists in treating every non-US citizen as a source of intelligence data rather than an individual with their own rights and freedoms.