On Government Surveillance

Many of the arguments against mass government surveillance – the kind that GCHQ carries out – are deeply ideological. Those on the left see their comrades fighting for something and join in. There are, however, very good arguments in favour of significantly reducing the powers of GCHQ which, as the Snowden files tell us, carries out espionage on a stunning scale.

In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham designed a building called the Panopticon. It was designed primarily for use as a prison. A single watchman stands in the middle of the building and can see every cell; however, the inmates cannot see the watchman. He is hidden behind a contrivance – some blinds, say. Although a cellmate is unlikely to be being watched at any given time, it is the possibility of being watched at the present moment that leads him to change his behaviour; he accordingly acts as though he is being watched all the time.

In an interview with the BBC in Moscow, aired last week, Snowden revealed GCHQ’s “Nosey Smurf” programme. The programme runs off technology which gives GCHQ the power to turn on your phone microphone and listen to what is going on around you. And, if your phone is off, they have the power to turn it on – this one is codenamed “Dreamy Smurf”. The resemblance is striking. The government is the watchman and we are the inmates.

I am not of course saying that the direness of the current situation matches that of Bentham’s Panopticon. There is, however, an argument to be made about this. The possibility that someone could be listening to you at anytime, or watching you on your webcam, is an uncomfortable one.

It is what Glenn Greenwald is talking about when he refers to “an experience which I am certain that everyone in this room has had. It entails an individual who, thinking they’re alone, engages in some expressive behavior — wild singing, gyrating dancing, some mild sexual activity — only to discover that, in fact, they are not alone, that there is a person watching and lurking, the discovery of which causes them to immediately cease what they were doing in horror. The sense of shame and humiliation in their face is palpable. It’s the sense of, “This is something I’m willing to do only if no one else is watching.””

(Perhaps the religious are more comfortable with the notion. But, as Christopher Hitchens says, who could be happy about the existence of “a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime”? “How happy we ought to be, at the reflection that there exists not a shred of respectable evidence to support such a horrible hypothesis.”)

We cannot even play World of Warcraft without worrying if we are being spied on. Early Snowden documents revealed the NSA and GCHQ had put agents into the virtual world to monitor potential terrorists. As the NSA saw it in 2008, virtual games “are an opportunity!”

Many on the right argue it is worth renouncing the entitlement to online privacy because GCHQ’s access to our activity stops terrorists from killing us. It is not. In fact, if GCHQ saves any lives it is unlikely to be many and, as my other arguments will demonstrate (and as is obvious), life is not priceless.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board last year shared a report with President Obama which said: “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation… Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

Yes, this does not refer to internet surveillance. But there is no reason to believe that if the telephone records programmes are ineffective, the internet ones are effective, let alone significantly more effective. And the fact that Obama failed to call an outright halt to the telephone records programme after the PCLOB presented him with this report shows the American government is largely unconcerned with how effective its programmes – practically identical to those of GCHQ – are at saving lives.

The most deadly terrorists are the competent ones. If terrorists are competent, it is unlikely you can successfully surveil them. It is even less likely after Snowden’s revelations and, with the increasing number of lone wolf attacks, GCHQ would struggle with all the surveillance powers in the world.

Snowden’s revelations could have been anyone’s revelations; 480,000 private contractors in the US had the same “top-secret” security clearance as Snowden. That’s a staggering number. And, because GCHQ and the NSA are so intrinsically linked, the insecurity of our data is one of the biggest problems. Any one of those 480,000 could have sold the same documents Snowden chose to leak, to Al-Qaeda or Iran for instance.

There is also the question of money. GCHQ gets the lion share of the £1.9bn budget for Britain’s intelligence agencies. It has a workforce more than twice the size of MI5 and MI6 combined.

As The Economist reported last week, malaria deaths around the world have fallen by nearly half since 2000. The World Health Organisation believes malaria deaths could fall by another 90% in the next 15 years. Bed nets, at a cost of just $3 each, will be crucial for that to come true. A net lasts for 3 to 4 years and protects, on average, two people. Surely the nobler thing for this country to do would be to buy more nets, rather than invest in technology such as “Nosey Smurf”, and send them over to sub-Saharan Africa. Eliminating malaria would save trillions of dollars in lost productivity and health costs, thus boosting the world economy. Merely combating malaria would have similar effects. This is just one of a countless number of better ways in which the money spent on GCHQ could be redirected.

Or, if you are convinced we must spend it on keeping our citizens safe from terrorists, why not use the money for traditional methods like human intelligence? A method which is proven; a method which doesn’t put vast amounts of data at significant risk; a method which performs far better on the privacy front; and, to far greater an extent, a method we can trust.

We cannot trust GCHQ. In 2012 alone, there were 2,776 violations of procedure at the NSA. It is likely there were more at GCHQ; as their lawyers say themselves, “We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”. And we cannot know how many procedure violations there were at GCHQ because the system of judicial inspections is secret.

Further reading provides worrying thoughts. In 2013, it was found that the US Drugs Enforcement Administration was using the NSA’s surveillance capabilities to help them launch criminal investigations, before concealing how the investigations truly began. The oversight given to GCHQ is less than that given to the NSA. This is what Snowden means when he says “They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.” If the NSA is using information for purposes other than national security, there is reason to suspect GCHQ is doing something similar, something other than what its mandate permits.

What’s more, the law is not always right. It is improved over time by dissidents and civil strife. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African-Americans faced huge legalised forms of discrimination. Imagine how hard it would be to lead that emancipation movement in today’s world. GCHQ would monitor all communications between protesters; they would know who is connected to whom.

Peter Singer makes one realise how dangerous this is. “When a majority group—women—began their campaign, some thought we had come to the end of the road. Discrimination on the basis of sex, it has been said, is the last universally accepted form of discrimination, practiced without secrecy or pretense even in those liberal circles that have long prided themselves on their freedom from prejudice against racial minorities.

One should always be wary of talking of “the last remaining form of discrimination.” If we have learnt anything from the liberation movements, we should have learnt how difficult it is to be aware of latent prejudice in our attitudes to particular groups until this prejudice is forcefully pointed out.”

In other words, “we may come to see that there is a case for a new liberation movement.”

If all this is unconvincing, there is a final argument to be made. If you are a politician, there is a high chance you have done something in your life you wish to keep secret – perhaps a career-threatening scandal of some sort. The security services could use this information to blackmail you.

J. Edgar Hoover, founding Director of the FBI, had detailed files on many US politicians before his death in 1972, including on President Kennedy and President Truman. Both considered firing him. Neither did. Hoover’s access to information was amateurish compared to what GCHQ and the NSA have today. The threat of exposure could be subtle, making politicians more likely to vote for policies which the security services are in favour of.

The powers of GCHQ should be diminished, its funding used elsewhere. It is a body which breaches our privacy and has insufficient safeguards in place to protect our data.

A step away from Bentham’s Panopticon would be gratefully received.

Joe McKenzie, Political Editor

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