Five actions individual citizens can take against security agencies

Terror arrests aftermathBy Simon Davies

One irony of the storm over the NSA and other security agencies is that many people hope the matter will be resolved by the very institutions that nurtured the problems in the first place. There’s a largely misplaced trust that government and judicial systems have the ability – and the will – to reform an unstable edifice that they aided and abetted since the 1950’s.

There’s a largely misplaced trust that government and judicial systems have the ability – or the will – to reform an unstable edifice that they aided and abetted since the 1950’s.

The corruption scandal that recently engulfed US naval intelligence provides clear evidence that there’s a systemic failure reaching far beyond the NSA. Parliaments globally – where indeed they even care to consider the issue – are struggling to imagine how they can bring reform to a secretive system rooted in decades-old international agreements and technological infiltration. In some cases (Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, to name just a few) nations have played a key role in setting up the global spying system, and are thus compromised.

Even innovative and persuasive legal actions such as the one lodged in 2013 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and by Privacy International might end up playing merely to the margins of a global infrastructure that has already stitched the intelligence game up to the point of near impregnability.

So far, President Obama has done nothing to resolve these systemic failures (although some might argue there are encouraging signs). As for the rest of the world apart from Germany and South America, forget it. There’s a deafening policy silence that stretches from Britain to Australia.

True, there has been an inquiry by the European Parliament into the matter, but as these pages have explained, a similar inquiry sixteen years ago failed to achieve any reform – despite a futile demand by the full plenary of the European Parliament in 1998 that the US comes clean about its activities.

In these circumstances it’s no longer radical to suggest that citizens should take matters into their own hands to combat the endemic dysfunction and illegality that pervades our security agencies. This applies not just to naval intelligence and the NSA, but to security agencies around the world, most of which have escaped public and political scrutiny.

In these circumstances it’s no longer radical to suggest that citizens should take matters into their own hands to combat the endemic dysfunction and illegality that pervades our security agencies.

Of course this isn’t a matter to be contemplated lightly. Taking direct action involves making difficult ethical choices. And it may involve personal risk. Then of course there’s the question of precisely how – in any practical sense – an individual can influence institutions that appear impervious even to parliaments and constitutions.

The ethical question

A more detailed ethical discussion will unfold on these pages over coming weeks, but for the moment I’d like to work backwards by thinking about what practical measures an individual could take to help create change. If there isn’t a real tactical armoury, the ethical dimension is just theoretical.

Still, it’s useful to establish a basic ethical foundation so we’re all on the same page. This process often begins with two questions: “Is there a problem that needs fixing?” and “Is the problem being fixed?”

Assuming the answer in this case is a resounding “yes” to the first and “no” to the second, the ethical challenge then only requires two additional cornerstones: “Do I have a legitimate right that my opinion be taken into account?” This is followed by “How far can I reasonably go to have my opinion heard?” This last question is to do with strategy and tactics.

If in light of these inquiries you believe your views are being unreasonably ignored, there are grounds for more direct – even unlawful – action. Reformers have for millennia relied on this simple ethical logic. In order to achieve change the activist often must test the limits of the law. Indeed, even by suggesting the list of actions below I would in some countries be exposed to a charge of incitement.

Of course the ethical question doesn’t end there. You still possibly need to consider whether your intervention might create unjustified harm. Your actions may be disruptive or irritating to authorities, opening you up to accusations of harming the “public interest”. Those are questions we’ll explore later this month.

Coming back to the practical and tactical elements, there are at least five generic actions individual citizens can take. In each case make sure you have built a strong ethical and intellectual foundation for your actions – something that can be summarised in fifteen seconds for media, the public – or for irritated police and officials.

1. Be a Lone Protester

Swampy in action

Swampy in action

Never underestimate the power of a single protester. Six people in a bunch can risk looking sad, but one person standing dignified and alone has potency. Recall the powerful imagery of the Tiananmen Square tank protester or the iconic photo from the anti-Vietnam war protests of a lone girl placing a flower into a live gun barrel. Media love mavericks – and closed organisations fear them. Consider the high-profile actions of the lone environmental protester “Swampy” in the 1990’s. The added advantage is that the lone protester very quickly sensitises other people to become involved. Target a relevant security or governmental organisation and ensure that your placard is well thought out – punchy and memorable. Make yourself photo-worthy. And avoid Fridays and weekends as they are often a dead-zone period for media.

2. Blatantly trespass on their property

Lindis Percy invades the Menwith Hill NSA base

Lindis Percy invades the Menwith Hill NSA base

You’ll need two resources for this action: a friend who is prepared to film the moment, and a willingness to risk arrest (although this sometimes does not result in a charge). This action again leverages the iconic imagery of the lone maverick. Make the intrusion obvious (and preferably innovative) and don’t cause physical damage to property. The footage can be inspirational for others, but it is worth bearing in mind that in some countries the mere fact of arrest can have a bearing on travel, employment and personal privacy, including mandatory fingerprinting, DNA collection and inclusion on a police computer system. However anyone seeking inspiration should look no further than the UK activist Lindis Percy, whose trespass-actions to bring the NSA base at Menwith Hill to account have generated a remarkable reaction from authorities.

3. Play opposing politicians against each other

Politicians have enemies – use them

Just about every politician has political enemies – sometimes, lots of them. The aim of this strategy is to engage these dynamics to flush out support for security reform. Send a constructive letter with detailed questions to a government-party parliamentarian. The response, inevitably, will be dismissive. Write again, and again, each time politely requesting a substantive response. After the third strike, forward the correspondence to the “natural enemy” on the other side of parliament with a request that something be done about this failure of response. This will generate correspondence between members and could help influence political dynamics – as well as providing interesting material for speeches and actions.

4. Spark a Drone War

lp3-20main-20taco-20130503204909672308-620x0In 1999 the British TV comedian Mark Thomas flew a manned balloon over the NSA Menwith Hill spy facility, resulting in utter chaos within the base. These days you don’t need to go that far. This is one of those occasions when drones can actually work in the interest of civil rights awareness. Again, make sure the action is filmed. Buy a lightweight drone that has visual capture and a reasonably long range remote capability, check out your local air-space regulations and figure out a appropriate target. If there are restrictions in place (unlikely outside the US or some parts of Europe) play to the very limit of those restrictions and plan and document your measurements in advance. Authorities will not be happy about your actions and you need to stall for time when they arrive. Make sure to seek out visually interesting places to film. Depending on the location your action may generate a very large public audience, but be aware that most countries have legal restrictions on filming government property, so be prepared for threat of arrest. Of course by then – assuming you’ve streamed or remotely captured the images – you have a wonderful video diary that will inspire and entertain.

5. Mischievous letter-writing

Letter-writing is a much underrated activity in campaigning. A well framed letter, posing a complex question, can engage staff for hours or even days. In many cases even security administrations are required to answer correspondence from the public. Their political masters will certainly need to carefully consider doing so. Letters should be polite and detailed. Write regularly and you can’t lose. Either you’ll receive nebulous replies (which can then be copied to politicians), or you will receive nothing at all (which could be used by campaign organisations to support legal action). The law of probability is you’ll eventually receive a completely loony and reactionary response from a junior or maverick staffer at the agency. Do with that material what you may.

There’s no guarantee that these actions alone will create any measurable effect, but cumulatively they may raise public and political awareness and even create an administrative Denial of Service on security organisations. Right now a claim of harm to the public interest is unlikely to stand up in ethical terms. Any action you take is likely to be justifiable as long as individuals are not physically harmed.