Long before the vast planetary surveillance programs being carried out by the Five Eyes team were revealed by Edward Snowden, there was Echelon, a similarly globe-spanning system for slurping up communications. The person who did more than anyone to expose this top-secret collaboration was the UK journalist Duncan Campbell:

In 1988, he revealed the existence of the ECHELON project, which has since 1997 become controversial throughout the world. In 1998, he was asked by the European Parliament to report on the development of surveillance technology and the risk of abuse of economic information, especially in relation to the ECHELON system. His report, “Interception Capabilities 2000” was approved by the European Parliament in April 1999, and presented to the parliament in Brussels in February 2000. In July 2000, the European Parliament appointed a committee of 36 MEPs to further investigate the ECHELON system.

The MEPs wrote another report, “on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system)”, which was presented in July 2001. It would doubtless have created some pretty big waves in the EU had not the attack on the Twin Towers a few months later meant that nobody wanted to be seen weakening the intelligence services. The report was filed and Echelon was forgotten — and carried on as before. A new article by Campbell published in The Register shows that around the same time that most politicians lost interest in exposing mass surveillance, the UK government was busily building another, highly-intrusive monitoring system that wasonly acknowledged very recently:

Finally, on November 4th [2015], the Home Office took the lid off what had been going on secretly since 2000. Asking Parliament to allow mass surveillance of telephone records to continue, Home Secretary Theresa May admitted that “under Section 94 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 … successive governments have approved the security and intelligence agencies’ access” to [bulk] communications data from communication service providers”, claiming that it helped MI5 “thwart a number of attacks here in the UK”.

According to Campbell, that “bulk communications data” includes detailed records of telephone calls, health records, personal credit card and banking transactions, flight bookings and internet records. As he points out, the fact that all this data was being gathered secretly meant that repeated — and heated — Parliamentary debates about whether it should be collected, conducted in the belief that currently it was not, were a complete sham:

MPs and peers spent months arguing about a pretence, and in ignorance of the cost and human rights implications of what successive governments were doing in secret.

As well as duplicity, that bespeaks a stunning contempt on the part of the UK government for both Parliament and the public. That indifference to people’s concerns is also manifest in the latest attempt to bring in a Snooper’s Charter, officially known as the Investigatory Powers Bill. Campbell points out that the only response from the UK authorities to widespread fears about the creation of a huge, intrusive database recording key aspects of UK citizens’ lives is to pretend it doesn’t exist:

Vigilance on behalf of liberty has had little discernible impact, except in the field of semantics. Across 299 pages in the new Investigatory Powers Bill, the word “database” does not appear once.

Billions of call and internet records, stolen financial data, intercepted travel records, a heap of bulk personal datasets on matters including religion, racial or ethnic origin, political views, medical condition, sexual orientation, or legally privileged, journalistic or otherwise confidential information, all joined up together and archived in secret do not constitute a “database”, whatever techie readers may think. And that’s official.

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