NSA and GCHQ: snooping because we can

The crucial thing about the latest revelations from the secret documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden is their scope. When the Guardian first began publishing Mr Snowden’s documents seven months ago, it was immediately apparent that they described secret data-trawling operations by America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ of almost limitless reach.

One of the earliest official responses to such claims was that they were simply alarmist. Yes, some officials may have privately conceded, the documents described systems with the theoretical potential to reach deep into everyday civic life and personal communications. But in practice, they insisted, the only people who needed to be worried were terrorists. Haystacks had been built, as the officials put it, but it was the needles within them that mattered. The rest of us could sleep safe, since the watchers were only interested in those who were plotting to do us all harm.

That seemed a dangerously complacent view even then. But it is a wholly discredited argument now that more details have been made public. The latest documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of British and American surveillance of whom very few can seriously be seen as threats of that sort. On the contrary, though the targets include some Israeli, Taliban and Chinese activities, they also include the EU’s competition commissioner, who is hardly a threat to this country. Others on the snoopers’ hitlist are German government buildings in Berlin, embassies in Africa, and German communications with Turkey and Georgia —revelations likely to cause a fresh storm in Berlin. Elsewhere the target list includes a French diplomat, the oil giant Total, and the French-owneddefence group Thales. The United Nations development programme, now headed by the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, is there too, along with the Unicef children’s charity and the UN’s institute for disarmament research, the French-based NGO Médecins du Monde, and the head of the economic union of West African states.

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