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Eye on surveillance: France's PRISM, EU's concerns

The Fourth of July saw a flurry of news related to the U.S. National Security Agency's intelligence-gathering efforts. Here's a rundown.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
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George Orwell gets a clever birthday observance in the Netherlands (left), and Andrew Cromeek does a fine Edward Snowden in the short film "Verax" (which you'll find embedded below). Front404.com [left] and JShotVideo

As civil rights activists in New York, San Francisco, and across the U.S. celebrated the Fourth of July by protesting the National Security Agency's intelligence-gathering practices, several surveillance-related news items appeared. Here's a summary:

  • France's Le Monde newspaper reported Thursday that the country's Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) -- an intelligence and national security agency under the direction of the defense ministry -- has been illegally intercepting e-mails, texts, phone calls, and Web activity within France and between France and other countries, an effort similar to the NSA's PRISM-related activities.
    "D'apres le roman de George Orwell": Detail of a French movie poster for "1984"
    Le Monde said that only info on who's communicating with whom is grabbed, and not the actual content of phone calls. It also said the stored data can be accessed by France's seven other intelligence groups, including domestic secret services, and that suspicious communications can be subjected to more intrusive spying methods. Reuters summarized the Le Monde report earlier and said the DGSE wasn't immediately available for comment. And Le Monde said the French national security commission challenged its article by saying the targeted surveillance that's being conducted is legal and that the only government agency collecting data is one that checks for security breaches and is overseen by the prime minister's office.
    If true, the Le Monde report lends a bit of a twist to comments made today by France's top security official, who was guest of honor at the American Ambassador's Fourth of July garden party. The U.K.'s Guardian newspaper reported that Interior Minister Manuel Valls "publicly admonished" the U.S. by "denouncing alleged U.S. 'espionage' of France and other countries." Valls reportedly said during a speech that "in the name of our friendship, we owe each other honesty. We must say things clearly, directly, frankly."

  • Valls isn't the only European concerned about the U.S. National Security Agency: The European Parliament has adopted a joint, cross-party resolution to begin investigations into widespread NSA surveillance of the citizens of member states. As Zack Whittaker at CNET sister site ZDNet reports, the vote calls on the U.S. "to suspend and review any laws and surveillance programs that 'violate the fundamental right of EU citizens to privacy and data protection,' as well as Europe's 'sovereignty and jurisdiction'."
    The resolution also gives the European Commission the go-ahead to suspend data-sharing laws between Europe and the U.S., should the commission decide to. The resolution says the EC should "give consideration to all the instruments at their disposal in discussions and negotiations with the U.S...including the possible suspension of the passenger name record (PNR) and terrorist finance tracking program (TFTP) agreements." If the PNR were put on ice, flights between the U.S. and Europe could conceivably be grounded.
    The vote also notes "concern" over PRISM-like surveillance programs involving EU countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. And it gives the European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee the greenlight to start gathering evidence from U.S. and EU sources on how surveillance activities might violate EU citizens' rights to privacy and data protection. The committee plans to deliver its conclusions by the end of the year.

  • In other Europe-related news, the Guardian cited a German government spokesman in reporting that "a working group of high-level U.S. and German intelligence experts will begin 'an immediate and intense discussion' over the issues of data protection and intelligence collection" to address mounting European concerns that are "threatening to overshadow trade negotiations and damage Silicon Valley exports." Those talks could begin as soon as Monday.
    Also, EC Vice President Neelie Kroes said in a statement after the meeting of the European Cloud Partnership Board that though "cloud computing helps us benefit from the data revolution and is a gift to our economy," questions surrounding surveillance efforts are a problem.
    "If European cloud customers cannot trust the United States government or their assurances [regarding surveillance efforts], then maybe they won't trust U.S. cloud providers either. That is my guess. And if I am right then there are multibillion euro consequences for American companies."
    "We need trust," Kroes said. "In some cases, of course, it may be legitimate for authorities to access, to some degree, information held online; child protection and terrorism are good examples. Such access must be based on transparent rule of law, and is the exception to the rule."

  • Is all this world-shaking cloak-and-dagger business beginning to sound like fodder for a Hollywood-style film? Well, a group of Hong Kong-based indie filmmakers have already been there, done that -- sort of. The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog recently noted the posting to YouTube of the 5-minute short "Verax," which imagines what might have happened as U.S. and Chinese intelligence officers raced to find PRISM leaker Edward Snowden as he hid out in Hong Kong.
    Co-creator Marcus Tsui described the effort to Speakeasy as "a snapshot in time," as residents of the city speculated about the fate of Snowden, who was eventually allowed to leave the city because a U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with Hong Kong law. Snowden has reportedly filed for political asylum in 20 countries but is still apparently holed up in the transit section of Russia's Sheremetyevo airport. And Mashable reported today that members of Iceland's Pirate Party introduced a bill that would give Snowden Icelandic citizenship, should he end up in that country.
    The film's title, "Verax" ("truth teller" in Latin), refers to the code-name Snowden used when dealing with The Washington Post, to which, along with the U.K.'s Guardian, he leaked top-secret documents regarding NSA spying programs. Here's the film. We imagine someone will make a feature length movie about the Snowden saga one of these days.
  • On a final, and humorous, surveillance-related note, the Dutch city of Utrecht celebrated George Orwell's birthday recently by festooning outdoor surveillance cameras with party hats. Orwell, of course, wrote "1984" (published in 1949), which features the character Big Brother and the ominous tagline "Big Brother is watching you."