31/12/2012 09:56 GMT | Updated 01/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Echelon Redux

Just a quickie, as this is some sort of holiday season apparently. However, this did annoy me. In the same way that President Obama signed the invidious NDAA on 31 December last year, despite his previous protestations about using his veto, it appears the US government has sneaked/snuck through (please delete as appropriate, depending on how you pronounce 'tomato') yet another draconian law during the festive season, which apparently further erodes the US constitution and the civil rights of all Americans.

Yet another problem for our benighted cousins across the pond, you might think. But as so often happens these days, bonkers American laws can affect us all.

Two days ago the Senate approved an expansion of the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). This allows the US intelligence services to hoover up, if you'll pardon the mild intelligence joke, the emails of god-fearing, law-abiding Americans if they are exchanging emails with pesky foreigners.

Well of course the whole world now knows, post 9/11, that all foreigners are potential terrorists and are now being watched/snatched/extraordinarily rendered/tortured/assassinated with impunity. In Europe we have had many people suffer this way and some have managed to achieve recognition and restitution. That appears to do little to stop the drone wars and blood-letting that the USA has unleashed across the Middle East.

But the NDAA and the extended FISA should at least rouse the ire of Americans themselves: US citizens on US soil can now potentially be targeted. This is new, this is dangerous, right?

Well, no, not quite, as least as far as the interception of communications goes.

The Echelon system, exposed in 1988 by British journalist Duncan Campbell and reinvestigated in 1999, put in place just such a (legally dubious) mechanism for watching domestic citizens. The surveillance state was already in place, even if through a back door, as you can see from this article I wrote four years ago, which included the following paragraph:

ECHELON was an agreement between the NSA and its British equivalent GCHQ (as well as the agencies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) whereby they shared information they gathered on each others' citizens. GCHQ could legally eavesdrop on people outside the UK without a warrant, so they could target US citizens of interest, then pass the product over to the NSA. The NSA then did the same for GCHQ. Thus both agencies could evade any democratic oversight and accountability, and still get the intelligence they wanted.

The only difference now is that FISA has come blasting through the front door, and yet people remain quiescent.