NSA and Prism in the UK: The politics of a privacy plan


My previous post on personal privacy following Prismgate, "My Privacy Plan", sparked a fantastic discussion over on Hacker News.

The comment that most resonated with me – and had the most upvotes – questioned what the political aspect of a privacy plan would look like:

"My privacy plan will involve learning more about politics. Who are our representatives? What districts play disproportionate roles here? How are the oversight committees formed? Who’s on them and why? What can we do to be involved? This is a much longer timescale play — it’s a lifetime of being involved, rather than a quick technological fix now."

I agree that what I was proposing in my post was a quick technological fix. Well, quick compared to going down a lifetime of political activism route.

But one part of the comment suggested doing just this:

"I don’t believe that there’s any substitute for a politically engaged constituency…  It’s not ok to simply complain that the system will defend itself and there’s nothing you can do. Apply the same mindset that drives you through the multiple brick walls that are a startup to changing Washington."

Yes, the comment applied to the US, where the NSA surveillance scandal happened. But what would those brick walls look like in the UK? Who is my representative at a local, regional and national level? What can I do to get involved?

I’d been thinking about these questions but not actually doing anything about it. But then the Open Rights Group (ORG) – one of the pressure groups I signed up to since Prismgate – sent a newsletter, with a main piece called "What does Prism mean for the UK?"

"Further revelations about the UK intelligence agency’s (GCHQ) access to data gathered by their US counterparts have raised serious concerns about the legal framework they apply when accessing the data.

William Hague, Foreign Secretary, responded to the revelations with a statement in Parliament, a classic, ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’. Despite challenges from MPs, questions remain unanswered, including whether GCHQ can access UK citizens’ or others’ data from the NSA without a warrant."

While not giving too much information on what I can do, beyond supporting them, ORG are fighting for greater data protection law at the EU to help UK citizens’ privacy rights.

ORG also have a campaign site called Naked Citizens, where you can contact your MEP to ask them to respect your privacy rights.

This is done through the attention-grabbing-but-fun method of sending them a postcard of a naked citizen, covered by a privacy cat:


In order to send the postcard, I had to find out who my MEP was. A quick DuckDuckGo search later and I was on the WriteToThem site, a site from MySociety, which lets you find and write to your political representatives for free.

A simple postcode check let me find out not only who my MEPs were, but my Councillors, London Assembly members and my Members of Parliament representatives.

So through ORG’s newsletter, Naked Citizens site and WriteToThem, I had:

  • Found out more about the issues surrounding personal privacy
  • Found out more on how it applies to the UK
  • Research who my political representatives are at various levels
  • Taken an action to let my MEP representative know that I care about this issue

I did think the process would take some time and I’m aware this is just the start, but I had made a good start to educating myself about the issues and letting a representative know that I cared about this issue in less than an hour.

Which means you can do the same and perhaps it won’t take as long as you’d think.

But where next for me?

As well as continuing with the technological points in My Privacy Plan, I will continue working through the questions posed on the Hacker News discussion.

But I’d really appreciate hearing from anyone who is more aware of the political aspects around these issues to leave their advice and ideas in the comments about what we can do to protect our privacy.

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