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Why privacy campaigners for NSA reform must be uncompromising

Police in Thailand Lay Down Weapons and Join with ProtestorsBy Simon Davies

Thailand’s tourist authority is fond of marketing its country as the “Land of Smiles”, however in recent years the place has been anything but. “Seething cauldron” might be a more apt slogan.

Widespread anger at alleged corrupt activities of former Prime Minister Thakskin Shinawatra has fueled a mass movement against the military and government abuse that has for years routinely plunged this nation into dysfunction. Violence and military coups are all too frequent in the struggle for power and for change.

Former Prime Minister Thakskin Shinawatra: target and catalyst

Former Prime Minister Thakskin Shinawatra: target and catalyst

Then last month an event transpired that seemed almost too good to be true. A remarkable alliance of combatants unfurled when police laid down their shields and seemingly sat in solidarity with thousands of protesters who had gathered in the capital to rally against government corruption.

As it happens, the alliance was indeed too good to be true. Far from being a beacon of hope for reconciliation, the moment turned out to be a clever public relations stunt that inflicted calculated damage to the protesters. Still, in light of Thailand’s rocky history it was perhaps natural to celebrate a possible landmark of common cause.

The aspect that many activist news outlets failed to realise – or chose to ignore – was that police were ordered to stand down as part of a political tactic by the government to bolster its image and its policies.

The strategy in play was interesting, though surprisingly common: capture through PR. The present Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra – Thakskin’s sister – had previously offered amnesty for many previous politically motivated offences, which happen to include amnesty for her own brother. A street battle was the last thing the Thakskin siblings would have wanted.

In any event, the king’s birthday on the day following the rally would have meant any bloodshed could have put an end to the amnesty plan (the king has supreme authority in Thailand and his intervention is critical at times of political turbulence).

Neville Chamberlain and the 1938 Munich Agreement. Will rights campaigners fall victim to a similar political tactic over the NSA?

Neville Chamberlain and the 1938 Munich Agreement. Will rights campaigners fall victim to a similar political tactic over the NSA?

Rights campaigners everywhere should take note of such events. Whenever government authorities propose any sort of reconciliation or climbdown, it’s an almost certain bet there’s a Trojan horse on offer – or a poisoned chalice. Military strategic history highlights the potency of this tactic. Mindful of Godwin’s Law, it’s not necessary to consider extreme examples such as the disastrous 1938 Munich Agreement; the tactic pervades politics and business and has equal currency in many aspects of human rights reform.

That’s not to say that authorities never genuinely side with campaigners. They occasionally do. Last month it seems Italian riot police removed their helmets and joined anti-EU protesters while six months earlier a small group of military police in Brazil sat down with protesters campaigning against the rising cost of living (though another interpretation is that they were vastly outnumbered and the action was strategic). In any event by October the police scorecard for shootings and arrests was – yet again – disturbingly high.

However, such events are rare, and it would be unwise to fake some kind of blossoming accord where there is none. There’s an emerging trend of thought emerging among campaigners that the will of authorities is cracking over issues of poverty, corruption or loss of rights. Rare images of capitulation are glorified, where in reality such events should be seen as highly dangerous strategies to undermine efforts at reform.

Whenever government authorities propose any sort of reconciliation or climbdown, it’s an almost certain bet there’s a trojan horse on offer – or a poisoned chalice.

It’s tempting to imagine that state apparatchiks will suddenly see the light and turn against their masters in the quest to make the world a better place, but from the perspective of pure statistics no-one should count on such a moment. Historically, acts of restraint and humanity are often viewed by authority as measurable tactical devices.

The present controversy over communications surveillance offers a disquieting insight into the intransigence of authority. One might imagine that the acid test of the ethical fragility of state agencies would be a global dialogue in which the agencies themselves had been proved unlawful and unconstitutional in their actions. Surely in such a situation many officials and contractors would have broken ranks to stand alongside those who seek reform.

So where are those dissenters? Where are the ethical men and women in the employ of the state who said “enough” and walked to the other side of the line, bringing their insider knowledge to the public forums?

Such people are nowhere to be seen. Sure, some companies pulled their compromised products in protest, a few global corporations tightened their procedure for disclosures as well as their security and some politicians took to the soapbox, but media still must rely on the same half-dozen “informed sources” that they had available at the beginning of last year. Meanwhile, there is silence from ninety percent of the world’s complicit governments. And yet some campaigners believe that rights reform is a mighty force that will crush the will of the privacy invaders.

Reflect on the raw figures for a moment: 100,000 SIGINT staff in the democratic world; six whistleblowers – and only one newcomer of any note over the past year.

Following the publication of the report by President Obama’s task force into the Snowden disclosures, campaigners should be prepared for a carefully stage-managed climbdown by US authorities. At its heart will be a call for trust and good will, buttressed by an old tactic used by door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen: “Take the deal while you can; it’s a one-time offer”.

Well, perhaps campaigners shouldn’t be so willing to accept such a deal. If Thailand teaches us anything, it’s that reformers should – metaphorically – take no prisoners.