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Edward Snowden’s lawyer among prestigious line-up of privacy campaigners, scholars, journalists and tech experts in Cardiff for major surveillance event

18 June 2015

Surveillance cameras

Conference will also see the presentation of new research showing a "lack of transparency" on state surveillance to be a "major concern" among British public

major conference will get underway today (18 June) bringing together journalists, international researchers, privacy advocates and technology developers to discuss the relationship between the state, its citizens and the media in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks.

The conference presents a significant opportunity for public discussion of the implications that the Question of Trust report - published last week by David Anderson QC - has for the government's proposed Investigatory Powers Act, dubbed the 'Snooper's Charter' by critics.

Ben Wizner, Edward Snowden's lawyer, will open the conference with a keynote address reflecting on the historic global debate that Snowden's disclosures helped inspire, focusing on democratic and technological reforms and the role of the media.

He'll be joined by a prestigious line-up of speakers including Dr Gus Hosein of Privacy International, who'll set out how the future might look in terms of technology and innovation but argue that, unless tough decisions are taken to fix 'broken' approaches to surveillance, the opportunities offered by this innovation won't be realised.

Other speakers include former MI5 whistleblower Annie Machon, Ed Paton-Williams - Open Rights Group, Tony Bunyan - Statewatch, James Ball - The Guardian, Gavin MacFadyen - Centre for Investigative Journalism, and Professor Ian Brown of Oxford University.

The conference will also include academic presentations and reflections, strategy meetings on policy reform, and a hackathon led by Dr Michael Rogers (Technical University of Delft) to develop technical tools for secure communication. 

Hosted at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, the conference forms part of a major research project on 'Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society'; the interim findings of which will also be presented at the event.

The 18-month ESRC*-funded project, a collaboration between academics at Cardiff and Oxford Universities, is exploring the nature, opportunities and challenges of digital citizenship in light of the government surveillance measures revealed by Edward Snowden.

Preliminary findings highlight concern on the "lack of transparency on the level of state surveillance in the UK" among the public, with people being "acutely aware" of surveillance taking place but feeling "powerless" to do anything about it.

The findings also question the efficacy of technological tools, such as encryption methods, aimed at protecting personal privacy, and the role technical standards are playing in enabling or hindering surveillance.

The research is being led by Dr Arne Hintz, Dr Lina Dencik and Prof Karin Wahl-Jorgensen from the University's School of Journalism, in conjunction with Professor Ian Brown of Oxford University and Dr Michael Rogers (Technical University Delft). 

Dr Arne Hintz, lead researcher on the project, said:"Today's conference is aptly timed given the recent publication of the Anderson report, which highlighted the vast shortcomings of existing UK policy on surveillance, showing it to be unclear and inadequately supervised. Two years on from the Snowden revelations, their fallout is just starting to emerge. The US government is reviewing its surveillance policies, parliamentary inquiries are underway in countries like Germany, and the Anderson report shows that significant reforms are necessary in the UK, too."  

Dr Hintz said that Anderson's calls for the implementation of more rigid legal safeguards, and a serious review of both authorisation and oversight of surveillance capabilities, support much of his team's preliminary research findings.

He continued: "Crucially, his report reinforces the current turmoil over how to address surveillance adequately. The UK government wants to expand surveillance with its plans for a 'Snooper's Charter', whereas the US government has recently acted to limit surveillance through its USA Freedom Act. Digital rights campaigners and UN institutions have strongly criticised the current level of mass surveillance, and now Anderson has confirmed that surveillance laws should be reformed and tightened. Each of these issues will be unpacked over the next two days and we're pleased to be joined by such a high calibre of experts to help shape this process." 

Dr Lina Dencik said: "The Anderson report has confirmed a key preliminary finding of our research – on the issue of transparency. We have found that the lack of transparency surrounding the level of state surveillance and the way it is being conducted remains a major concern among the British public. People want to know why and how their personal data is being collected and used, and what legal safeguards exist. This is central at a time when one of the first acts of the newly-elected Conservative government has been to increase intelligence agencies' surveillance powers, while at the same time withholding the publication of annual transparency reports on the security services as initiated under the coalition government.

"Our research has revealed that people are acutely aware of surveillance happening online, be it by the state, corporations, employers or peers. Most people don't like that this is happening, and will try and monitor their online behaviour accordingly, but also feel powerless to do much about it. This relative resignation to the realities of mass surveillance in the UK arguably stands in contrast to developments we are witnessing in Germany and the US two years on from the Snowden leaks."

Today's conference will also include a session focusing on information security for journalists, which will look at available tools and strategies aimed at improving journalists' online communication with each other and sources. The 'Portable Snowden Surveillance Archive' - a fully text-searchable Internet-based archive created by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and researchers at the University of Toronto will also be presented.

The full conference programme can be accessed here.