By Owen Ryan
CLARE TD Michael McNamara chaired a hearing of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Assembly of the Council of Europe this week, which was addressed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, who addressed the Strasbourg hearing by video link from Russia.
The 30-year-old former US Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency contractor leaked thousands of documents revealing the extent of surveillance being carried out by US authorities. Now wanted in the US, he is in exile in Moscow.
Mr McNamara said that what some of what Snowden told the hearing about spying on people involved in the protection of human rights.
“He said the US Government had spied on human rights workers, had specifically targeted bodies like the International Human Rights Watch, the National Security Agency (NCA) had specifically targeted leaders and staff members in a number of NGOs, including some in the United States,” Mr McNamara explained.
Mr Snowden addressed the hearing on the same day as the European Court of Justice struck down the EU Data Retention Directive, following a challenge from Digital Rights Ireland.
The East Clare native asked Snowden about the significance of that decision, but he said he doubted it would derail American agencies.
“I asked him about its impact and he wasn’t overly optimistic. He said there are large groups of people hired by the NSA whose job was to interpret law in the most liberal way possible to their ends. Basically, he indicated that their role was to subvert the intention of the lawmakers and to do as much snooping as possible.”
He said that Snowden claimed that the collection of absolutely vast amounts of data, which aren’t targeted, doesn’t actually work against terrorism, because of its lack of focus. “There’s so much data being taken in that it’s not effective. These files are being created on people but they’re not targeted,” said Mr McNamara.
Snowden is now a hero to many in Europe and Mr McNamara said the significance of the information made public by him is now understood.
“I think there’s a lot of empathy for him and his position and a wide acceptance that he has done the world a huge favour. Our own whistleblowers have done Ireland a favour and I think most people now accept that Snowden has done the world a huge favour and sooner or later that’s going to have to be acknowledged,” Mr McNamara stated.
He said there is now something of a void given this week’s decision by the European Court of Justice. “The ECJ judgement comes at an interesting time and it’ll be interesting to see what the response to it is. Obviously the data protection directive is now struck down and what the legislative authorities bring in to replace it will be very interesting.”
He said that the amount of information that can be gleamed from unsuspecting people is “completely frightening” while he doesn’t accept the argument that only those who break or attempt to break the law should be worried about levels of surveillance. “There are people who say that if you do nothing wrong you’ve nothing to worry about, but then the question is who decides it’s worth infringing the privacy rights of thousands of people or tens of thousands of people so that one person can be more easily be tracked down or more easily found out.”
Years ago he read a certain novel by George Orwell and the encounter with Snowden called it to mind once again. “I read 1984 in the nineties and it seemed completely fantastic, but it doesn’t at all now,” he concluded.