Last week we saw how the USA’s National Security Agency has access to the personal details of the customers of many US companies, Verizon, Apple, Google, Facebook and other internet and communications giants. The program called Prism, which allows the NSA to hack into search histories, emails, private chats and other sensitive personal information highlights an instance where spying can cross ethical and legal boundaries in the quest for national security.
Any twitter, Facebook or news observer will have seen the hysteria around the story. It is perhaps a bit over the top. Not that it is understandably worrying, to know the state has access to such information, but this is not really new and there are much more terrifying capabilities in the intelligence services.
On the Andrew Marr Show, Foreign Secretary William, the Minister responsible said that “law-abiding citizens had nothing to fear” from the Prism system but refused to confirm or deny if GCHQ used such systems to get sensitive, and potentially crucial data. The short answer to that Mr Hague should have given, and the obvious one is “yes, of course we do.”
Under the terms of the UKUSA intelligence sharing agreement (also known as ECHELON) of which the Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians are also signatory states, any of these states has access to unprecedented amounts of intelligence from the other state, and take part in high level joint eavesdropping operations. The information generated may not even be highly shared inside government departments. Thus the UK can, and most likely does, take advantage of the information provided by Prism, and to be honest, you would be silly not to.
Signals intelligence, eavesdropping, hacking into computers and communications networks provides by far the best and highest volume of intelligence. It is estimated that the NSA receives over a billion pieces of intelligence every week, so a lot of valuable information that may save lives can be put to use. But to what extent can civil liberties be broken down to protect the public, and the state?
Intelligence certainly goes into an ethically grey area. It is estimated that an individual living in London will be photographed up to 300 times a day. They are more CCTV cameras for example in the Shetland Islands than in San Francisco. No country better represent the surveillance state than the UK. Prism and the NSA’s ability to hack into private databases is nothing new here, GCHQ have been doing it for decades, and Cameron has only furthered this effort. With the rise of cyber security, now seen by the Joint Intelligence Committee as posing the same threat to the UK as nuclear weapons, we are going to see more spying carried out online, and that means, more state access to your personal details.
It is not just surveillance where things get tricky. The question is to what extent intelligence means justify the ends. For example, in the 1980s an MI5 agent, codename steak-knife, who had infiltrated the IRA provided first-class intelligence and was pivotal in the Security Service’s not entirely successful efforts to prevent acts of terror. Steak-knife in order to keep his cover had to kill, injure and torture members of the public as well as other MI5 and Special Branch agents. Was his intelligence really worth it considering what he had to do?
It would however be unwise to treat such events as signs of a “big-brother state” or a move towards. There is no media censorship by the state, freedom of speech is totally intact and unless you are a terrorist about to kill a lot of people, the state will not kill you. Even then, it the act seems justifiable; kill one, save a thousand. The intelligence services are there to protect us, to preserve our liberty, safety and security. Without GCHQ the UK would not be as safe. It is highly likely that the amount of credit card theft for example, would be much greater without such intelligence.
There is strict democratic oversight over such agencies. Every single operation, technique, mission, general priority and objective must be permitted by the relevant minister. The agencies are far away enough from Whitehall to not simply be means to “rubber-stamp” government policy, but close enough so that the public concern, represented through parliament, can be represented in the agencies. The Joint Intelligence Committee, the main body of Whitehall responsible for spying, is where all the priorities for the intelligence community are set out, and the PM and other cabinet ministers have the last say. Everyone is responsible to the PM, the parliamentary Select Committee and the cabinet. Anyone who would use the access to private data for anything else than protecting the public is, by law, subject to imprisonment (although that didn’t happen with the Dodgy Dossier).
To suggest that this moves Britain and the UK towards a Putin-style dictatorship is stupid. There has been a great deal of democratisation in these areas of government work in the last 30 years (such as placing all services on a statutory basis in 1994, meaning they can be scrutinised in the Commons) and these developments far outweigh things like Prism. It is nothing new in the intelligence world and in the UK, we have legal protection from the misuse of such data, and the government are not really interested in that anyway. Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un are interested in this, but we are far, far away from a situation where the intelligence services are used to supress freedom and the state can spy on us in our own homes. To fear such a situation and see GCHQ as preventing freedom is simply irrational and shows severe ignorance of the intelligence field.
There is of course a fine line between spying and repression, and that must be respected. But Cameron, Obama, Hollande and the rest of NATO and ECHELON stay on the right side of that line.