A raft of papers released by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden last week show that the British government may have been monitoring Irish telephone and internet communications for years via a series of underwater cables that connect the country to the world.
But what is perhaps even more surprising is the official silence of the Irish government following the disturbing revelations. To date not one cross word has been uttered in response to Snowden’s findings.
IrishCentral reached out to Ryan Gallagher, an award winning journalist with The Intercept - the publication set up by Glenn Greenwald and others to report on the documents provided by Snowden - to ask why he thinks the Irish government has not responded with outrage to this revelation?
“It's politics,” Gallagher, whose work is focused on government surveillance, technology, and civil liberties, says.
“The government in Ireland is trying to remain on good footing with Westminster and clearly wants to avoid a messy public spat about spying. Irish officials might raise some concerns privately through diplomatic channels, but who's to say they didn't already know it was going on? The Irish government may even have permitted the spying on condition that intelligence collected from the cables is shared.
“That is pure speculation on my part, but it's worth posing the question, because governments do sometimes secretly enter into those kind of deals. Either way, Irish people surely deserve answers from the politicians they elected into power. The ongoing silence is shameful.”
Cynicism about the scale of global surveillance actually seems to be enabling it to continue without significant push back, so what kind of developments can dislodge this kind of public indifference?
“There is a lot of public indifference, but the apathy is not ubiquitous. A lot of people are very disgruntled about the scope of the spying that has gone on, and we are already seeing substantive cultural and technological changes as a result.
“More people than ever before, for instance, are now adopting privacy-enhancing encryption and anonymity tools to protect their emails, phone calls, and internet browsing sessions from being intercepted. To me, this illustrates that you don't have to wait on some sort of mass awakening. If people are personally concerned about the spying, they can empower themselves by learning how to use encryption. That is the best way to individually protest surveillance, certainly more effective than waiting around for other people to take action on your behalf.”
What new surveillance technologies are employed by British intelligence - how far does their dragnet reach - and in what ways could they compromise Irish sovereignty?
“Their dragnet reach is now more invasive and powerful than at any time in human history, no exaggeration. That is largely thanks to the internet and the boom in digital communications - smartphones, emails, apps, social media. The spy agencies have developed very sophisticated ways to trawl through all of this information, and even collect and store large quantities of it in bulk so that they can sift through it retrospectively.”
Gallagher continued: “If Irish citizens' emails and phone calls are being collected en masse in this way, then clearly that represents a fundamental violation of ordinary people's rights, and a gross breach of Irish sovereignty, assuming the Irish government has not sanctioned it.
“Conducting mass surveillance of citizens who are not suspected of any crimes or wrongdoing represents a total subversion the privacy provisions contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, for instance.”
Gallagher concluded: “If the British are using their capabilities to intercept Irish diplomatic communications, then that would represent a clear breach of international law in the shape of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”