Privacy activists, human rights campaigners and former US security officials have expressed fears over the prospect of Donald Trump controlling the vast global US and UK surveillance network.
Privacy and human rights campaigners in the US and UK say a Trump presidency will tip the balance between surveillance and privacy decisively towards the former. The UK surveillance agency GCHQ is so tied up with America’s NSA, often doing work on its behalf, it could find itself facing a series of ethical dilemmas.
On the campaign trail, Trump made an ambiguous remark about wishing he had access to surveillance powers.
“I wish I had that power,” he said while talking about the hack of Democratic National Committee emails. “Man, that would be power.”
“I think many Americans are waking up to the fact we have created a presidency that is too powerful.”
John Napier Tye, a former state department official who became a reluctant whistleblower in 2014, warning of NSA dragnets, said: “Obama and Bush could have set the best possible privacy protections in place, but the trouble is, it’s all set by executive order, not statute.
“So Trump could revise the executive order as he pleases. And since it’s all done in secret, unless you have someone willing to break the law to tell you that it happened, it’s not clear the public will ever learn it did. Consider that even now, the American people still do not know how much data on US persons the NSA actually collects.”
Thomas Drake, an NSA whistleblower who predated Snowden, offered an equally bleak assessment. He said: “The electronic infrastructure is fully in place – and ex post facto legalised by Congress and executive orders – and ripe for further abuse under an autocratic, power-obsessed president. History is just not kind here. Trump leans quite autocratic. The temptations to use secret NSA surveillance powers, some still not fully revealed, will present themselves to him as sirens.”
One specific surveillance measure Trump proposed on the campaign trail was surveilling mosques and keeping a database of Muslims. “A grave concern we have is that his rhetoric is going to be perceived in some corners as a green light for unfettered surveillance activities. Our concern is not just about the NSA but also the FBI. The FBI doesn’t exactly have a great record over the last 15 years,” said Farhana Khera, the president and executive director of the US-based civil rights group Muslim Advocates.
The next flashpoint over the NSA’s powers will come late in 2017, when a major surveillance law permitting collection of Americans’ international communications is set for expiration, the legal basis for the NSA’s Prism programme which siphons information from the technology giants.
According to documents released by Snowden, now years out of date as technological advancements have developed, the NSA vacuums 5bn daily records just of cellphone locations. In April 2011, it was collecting an average of 194m text messages every day.