The Guardian newspaper’s allegations that British intelligence agents spied on foreign diplomats at a G20 summit surely comes at an awkward moment in foreign policy circles: just as leaders gathered for the G8 in Northern Ireland.
But it also comes at a sensitive moment for Britain itself, still reeling from the phone hacking of British media giants that has brought privacy issues to the fore of the public debate.
“The issue of the ease with which organizations can both collect and then publicize information is transforming society’s understanding about what is and what is not confidential,” says Martin Moore of the London-based Media Standards Trust, a charity advocating more ethical practices in the British press.
The most recent allegations, against the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), are based on documents provided by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. The British newspaper reported Sunday night that the agency spied on the phone calls and emails of diplomats who were visiting London during a G20 summit in 2009. This included setting up and tapping an Internet café and hacking the communications of the South African foreign ministry and a Turkish delegation.
The revelation comes after Mr. Snowden provided documentation, also to the Guardian and The Washington Post, disclosing the surveillance of common citizens by the US government in its ongoing anti-terrorism fight – a revelation that had dismayed Europe.
But the GCHQ scandal raises questions that relate to the 2011 phone-hacking scandal in British media, says Mr. Moore. In the earlier scandal, information that public figures and newsmakers considered private was accessible by corporations, creating a "digital footprint" and the “potential for misuse,” he says – much like the GCHQ spying, just with the government, instead of media corporations, doing the hacking of the public's data.
This case will turn attention to the access that governments have to information considered private. “We’re going to see many more conversations about what the safeguards ought to be and whether there ought to be greater openness from governments as to what [information] they are collecting and how they are using it,” Moore says.
Just this month, Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, pleaded not guilty in court in London to charges including intercepting voice-mail messages in a scandal that eventually spread to officials and other news organizations.
“The phone-hacking scandal produced massive reaction," says James Curran, director of the media studies center at the University of London, and left a society sensitive to the powers of new technologies.
“Powerful institutions in society are now enabled through new communications technology to probe private letters without sufficient public-interest justification,” he says. The discontent has spanned the political spectrum, with both the right and left condemning an erosion of privacy. “My hunch is there will be enormous fuss, like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger.”