June 5th, 2013, The first reports of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance programs were released to the public. You heard about it, of that I am certain. You were outraged, disappointed, yet maybe unsurprised. But at that first moment of confirmation, you were worried. You used incognito mode every time you browsed, thinking it might do something, you cleared your cache and history, and wondered if something you’d looked up would leave you with some unwanted attention. More allegations emerged about the US government spying on its citizens, though they got less and less coverage. By the time a month had passed, the effect of the leaks on you had faded. You’d forgotten. Your interest had waned. Though for some the effects are far from over. They are not ‘out of sight, out mind’ like they might be for us.
Residing in Russia after having been granted temporary asylum there –which has recently been extended to the year 2020, Edward Snowden, a champion of U.S intelligence transparency continues to promote issues of privacy and anonymity. Still he constantly involves himself in live video conference talks in every corner of the world, including in Melbourne where he spoke last May. In conversation with Julian Morrow of Chaser fame, Snowden reiterated to the audience that powers of Australian Intelligence services are now “much more unrestrained than they are in the United States, despite how dire the situation is there”. The respected outsider acted more or less as a light through the fog, reminding us of what is happening right in front of our eyes.
Snowden reaffirmed for his audience that there have been some successes from his actions three years ago. In the United States, the requirement for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to approve or deny surveillance requests was established. The Email Privacy Act which would prevent general acquisition of private emails, was introduced as a bill to the United States Congress and the specific NSA program Snowden’s leak exposed has since been shut down.
But there have been failures too. The FISC did not deny any requests last year; the Email Privacy Act has stalled in the US Senate. In Australia, public outrage has not been matched by policy. Under the National Security Legislation Amendment (2014), increased penalties for disclosing information about security operations were introduced –the legislation applies to both those within and outside of the intelligence community. This had the effect of making it harder for whistle-blowers and journalists to bring such material to light. Where was all the fuss kicked up by both the media and the public when it was passed? Why do we look away in the first place? I wonder if reading it now might change anything.
It is often hard then to feel as if any progress is being made. But there are small steps. European responses were more wholehearted, though still lacking, with a general wave of condemnation from European governments. Importantly, there was a German investigation into strategies to prevent the re-emergence of mass surveillance. But equally they have dawdled on implementing any actual measures to do this.
In the final days of his administration, President Obama commuted the sentences of many prisoners, including Chelsea Manning who was convicted of espionage in 2013. During his presidency, however, the rules for data sharing between the NSA and other intelligence agencies were loosened. This meant that all the excessive personal data collected by surveillance programs will continue to be in the possession of the Federal Government of the United States. While Obama’s commutations set some precedent – though nothing formal, for the treatment of whistle-blowers, the issues raised by them and the need to protect whistle-blowers like them seem to have receded from any real scrutiny.
Australians have largely dismissed the Snowden leaks as a rather irrelevant, foreign problem. We cannot do that with the Panama Papers, released in mid-2016. Major Australian companies such as NAB, ANZ and BHP Billiton were named in the papers, alongside Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull –although he himself was not implicated of any wrongdoing. Such allegations are something we must acknowledge and confront.
These are merely a few of so many leaks that continue to be reported about and subsequently forgotten. There were ‘The Drone Papers’, published by The Intercept. These papers detailed how people end up on US kill lists -though the leaks themselves have not been without due criticism. Furthermore, there were many other leaks published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, concerning deaths and displacement in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo by Australian mining interests.
All these stories have come and gone, already bowing out of the spotlight, often with limited public impact. Do you remember seeing it on television? Do you remember it as trending news? As a top rated post?
Why do we forget so quickly? These sorts of crises are now a constant. It seems as if every week, there’s another story breaking. We are forced to discard them so quickly just to keep up with what’s happening next. From leaks, to wars, to elections and administrations, there is so much news we don’t have the time to understand its gravity or its consequences.
Even now, we regularly follow leaks of questionable ministerial spending by the Federal Government, with new accusations of wrongdoing emerging almost daily. How about the explosive reports coming from the United States regarding Russian interference in their presidential election?
Is it that we toss aside any information doesn’t immediately affect us? Surely not, because responses to the actions of government wrongdoing both here and the US have been vivid and immediate. We do watch each other’s backs, though not necessarily for long enough. It is doubtless that governments and corporations will continue to act illegally and uncompromisingly to serve their own interests. But we cannot allow the existing voter apathy to evolve into ‘corruption apathy’, in essence the normalisation of these revelations after we’ve spent our collective outrage. Every morning it seems we can wake up to another story that would have been unthinkable a year ago. With an extended public push, not only just when these issues arise but instead until we see a resolution, perhaps then we would be able to unite together in a fight for greater political transparency, integrity, and legitimacy.