At the UK premiere of A Good American at Take One Action Film Festival as part of Moving Docs, NSA analyst-turned-whistleblower Bill Binney made a strong case against mass surveillance and for the need to focus.
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Bill Binney is not mincing his words. In a rallying battle cry against mass surveillance, the former NSA analyst tells an audience at the UK premiere of A Good American that we are basically at war. In every democracy across the world; in our very “hearts and minds”, a war “against the totalitarian temptation” is being waged.
Perhaps because Binney is such a quiet, considered man, his words seem to carry extra weight. But it’s not just his solemnity that captures attention. Binney is not just a campaigner for civil liberties, speaking of principles and rights. He was on the inside – one of them. A high-level NSA analyst, technical director, and one of the best mathematicians the agency ever had, Bill Binney was their man for 32 years. And then, suddenly, he was their enemy.
A Good American tells the story of Binney’s life work, and his persecution by the government. Summarising the situation for the audience at the Take One Action Film Festival, Binney runs through every major terrorist attack in recent years. Madrid, Boston, 9/11, 7/7, Paris, Orlando, the list goes on. “All preventable”, he says, glumly; “all we needed was to watch the metadata.” Instead, the NSA dragged in all the content, swamping analysts with unmanageable volumes of information. They’re still doing it now – NSA, GCHQ, French security and others – trampling privacy and missing clues. It’s this that makes Binney so angry.
Thankfully, he found someone who would tell his story.
Fifteen years ago the world was still reeling from a terrorist attack on a scale previously unthinkable. The destruction of the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon attack on 11 September 2001 resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths and 6,000 injuries. Everybody old enough remembers watching the footage: smoke and ash billowing through Manhattan, people jumping from unimaginable heights, the second tower going down.
In the wake of 9/11 came invasion and never-ending war; many, many more deaths than the event itself caused. The erosion of civil liberties and privacy, not just in the US but across the world, followed suit, as government surveillance expanded even further.
The US government is vast. Its spying capabilities are vast too, and their precise nature – as well as what happens to you if you whistleblow about it – are the topics of upcoming film A Good American.
But you can’t really talk about the NSA without talking eventually about GCHQ, the UK equivalent. The Snowden leaks in 2013 showed how closely the two countries had collaborated in developing mass surveillance programs aimed at their own populations; but just two days ago, further leaks showed that the ‘collect it all’ ethos which came to dominate the American agency originated in the English countryside.
Still from A Good American: NSA's Bad Aibling listening post (now BND)
So in this third post on the issues raised in A Good American, we’re looking at the NSA’s friends in Britain, and how the UK’s current approach contrasts with developments in Europe. Three years since the first documents showing the extent of mass surveillance were leaked by Edward Snowden, even the US government has rolled back some of its spying, though not nearly far enough for many civil liberty advocates. The EU, meanwhile, has been getting tougher on companies sharing EU citizens’ data with the US.
But in the UK, where privacy protections are already poor, the government is apparently determined to increase mass surveillance to unprecedented levels.