UK journalists slam Russia for Big Brother spying laws – but keep mum as same laws get passed in UK

Martin Jay
Martin Jay is a veteran foreign correspondent now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as Deutsche Welle TV. Previously he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
© Ben Birchall
The greatest invasion of privacy known to the British people is about to come into force, allowing spy agencies to access your cellphone and monitor your internet traffic. But why are British journalists and MPs staying remarkably hush-hush about it?

Has mainstream media been told by London and Washington to steer clear of reporting on new spying legislation in the UK, which even Edward Snowden calls “scary”? It seems that journalists in the UK are struggling somehow to pick up the big story some tech sites have broken, in that the British will soon be spied on via their own telephones – and worse, that all their internet history is to be stored by intelligence services and possibly even be used to blackmail them into cooperating with police and security services.

Incredibly, recently the UK House of Lords provisionally gave the green light to the most draconian spying laws to date, which forces internet providers and hardware firms to make it easier for GCHQ to hack into people’s phones and get into their computers to monitor their online habits.

The draft laws were originally introduced into the House of Commons under then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2015. They are popularly known as the “Snoopers’ Charter.”

You would have had to read the reports on the dark web carefully, though, to believe that you hadn’t seen them weeks earlier somewhere before. In fact, you had. Near-identical laws had been passed earlier in the summer and were splashed around by western media, with UK hacks leading the cavalcade. But that was in Russia.

In June, journalists were scrambling over themselves to demonize Russia’s parliament, which had passed harsh anti-terrorism measures, drawing the wrath of a bevy of human rights campaigners, including NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who warned they will “roll back personal freedoms and privacy.”

Russia’s own lower house of parliament, the State Duma, voted 325 to 1 to adopt the “Yarovaya law,” a package of amendments authored by the ruling United Russia party member Irina Yarovaya, who has carved her anti-democratic reputation out on the backs of protesters and non-governmental organizations who cry that their liberties are being hung out to dry.

Snowden, who has lived in Russia since receiving asylum in 2013, tweeted that the “Big Brother law” was an “unworkable, unjustifiable violation of rights” according to Britain’s own left wing, libertarian broadsheet The Guardian, which quoted him saying it would “take money and liberty from every Russian without improving safety.”

The American whistleblower did cause a ruckus is the UK in October 2015, though, when he told a BBC journalist that Britain’s own data spying center was already spying on people via their cellphones, using a technology called “Smurfs.”

Snowden spoke to Panorama in Moscow, where he fled in 2013 after leaking to the media details of extensive internet and phone surveillance operations by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

He said both agencies had invested heavily in technology allowing them to hack smartphones. "They want to own your phone instead of you," he said.

Where is the same hue and cry though from the British press, when its own two assemblies seem poised to back new laws which would give the security services in the UK new, unparalleled access to the private lives and habits of its citizens?

But it’s not only journalists who are mysteriously not covering the big story which will make George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother look like a minor inconvenience to privacy.

Parliamentarians themselves seem to have been arrested by some divine power which has prevented them from scrutinizing the text of the “bill” which some suspect has both been written in haste – with entire pages written in vague terms – and is now being rushed through the parliament. Perhaps it might have something to do with one paragraph of the draft, which exempts MPs themselves from being the victim of the new snooping laws?

So why did Russia and now Britain take such moves in the name of anti-terrorism? And why are MPs and journalists trying to keep a lid on it?

For the press themselves, there is too much about the Snooping Charter which chimes with what many tabloid journalists were doing themselves in the UK in recent years – hacking ordinary people’s mobile phones – which culminated in The Leveson Report in 2012 recommending a new press watchdog which could punish phone hacking hacks.

But there is also, more likely, a collusion between MPs and journalists with the former directing political editors to not cover the story until it can be released on the same day as a terrorist incident – thereby giving a pretext for government spin doctors to serenade its virtues while news reporters walk across broken glass with police sirens and flashing lights providing the required audiovisual histrionics. 

It’s unlikely that the UK has not been already tapping into telephones for years though and that the charter is more about forcing the private sector to cooperate more on snooping.

Furthermore, it appears that Britain is a little behind both the Russians and the Americans who have been at it for years.

In New York City, A key NSA program called BLARNEY is allegedly run out of a secret location in the building that taps into “communications of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and at least 38 countries, including close US allies such as Germany, Japan, and France,” an NSA report leaked by Edward Snowdon reveals.

According to The Intercept, BLARNEY documents detail how the program does “full take” surveillance, meaning it gathers both content and metadata in bulk by using “commercial partnerships” to “gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks.” The data collection falls into six different categories: “counterproliferation, counterterrorism, diplomatic, economic, military, and political.”

Want to protect yourself from the British government snooping on you? Start looking at getting a VPN and using encrypting software like TOR. Can’t handle all that tech? Become an MP.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.