Many people seem to be quite complacent about having the US’s NSA, the UK’s GCHQ, and other government agencies spy on people’s communications and compile dossiers on their lives and associates because they have been convinced that they are under serious threat and that such measures are necessary to keep them safe.
British novelist John Lanchester is one such person, repeating all the usual alarmist rhetoric about the terrorists targeting us because of who we are and for our supposedly superior values, completely ignoring the fact that there are other, more concrete, causal factors at play.
We do have enemies, though, enemies who are in deadly earnest; enemies who wish you reading this dead, whoever you are, for no other reason than that you belong to a society like this one. We have enemies who are seeking to break into our governments’ computers, with the potential to destroy our infrastructure and, literally, make the lights go out; we have enemies who want to kill as many of us, the more innocent the better, as possible, by any means possible, as a deliberate strategy; we have enemies who want to develop nuclear weapons, and thereby vastly raise the stakes for international diplomacy and the threat of terrorism; and we have common-or-garden serious criminals, who also need watching and catching.
I get all that. It doesn’t thrill me to bits that the state has to use the tools of electronic surveillance to keep us safe, but it seems clear to me that it does, and that our right to privacy needs to be qualified, just as our other rights are qualified, in the interest of general security and the common good.
That pretty much sums up the attitude of those who are willing, even eager, to succumb to the authoritarian state.
So The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger invited Lanchester to see the files on the activities of the GCHQ that had been released by Edward Snowden. After carefully going through all the material, some of which that the public has not yet seen,, Lanchester concludes that much of the GCHQ’s activities are appropriate when they deal with targeting specific individuals who are contemplating specific acts. But he then goes on:
The problems with GCHQ are to be found in the margins of the material – though they are at the centre of the revelations that have been extracted from the Snowden disclosures, and with good reason. The problem and the risk comes in the area of mass capture of data, or strategic surveillance. This is the kind of intelligence gathering that sucks in data from everyone, everywhere: from phones, internet use from email to website visits, social networking, instant messaging and video calls, and even areas such as video gaming; in short, everything digital.
What this adds up to is a new thing in human history: with a couple of clicks of a mouse, an agent of the state can target your home phone, or your mobile, or your email, or your passport number, or any of your credit card numbers, or your address, or any of your log-ins to a web service.
Using that “selector”, the state can get access to all the content of your communications, via any of those channels; can gather information about anyone you communicate with, can get a full picture of all your internet use, can track your location online and offline. It can, in essence, know everything about you, including – thanks to the ability to look at your internet searches – what’s on your mind.
He says that there has been less outrage over the Snowden revelations in the UK than in the US and the rest of Europe because the UK government has much greater secrecy powers and does not have codified protections for speech and the press. But he adds that they are on a dangerous road.
People misunderstand what a police state is. It isn’t a country where the police strut around in jackboots; it’s a country where the police can do anything they like. Similarly, a security state is one in which the security establishment can do anything it likes.
We are right on the verge of being an entirely new kind of human society, one involving an unprecedented penetration by the state into areas which have always been regarded as private. Do we agree to that? If we don’t, this is the last chance to stop it happening. Our rulers will say what all rulers everywhere have always said: that their intentions are good, and we can trust them. They want that to be a sufficient guarantee.
Information is power. We live in an age where the government says it has the right to know everything about you but says that you do not have the right to know anything about what it does that it does not want to tell you. This leads to a dangerous imbalance.