On “Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear” from PRISM

It appears the NSA and GCHQ are able to read people’s e-mails more or less at will. The whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who made this startling revelation has fled to…. China…. (well, Hong Kong, but the irony remains).

Of course the NSA and GCHQ can read our communications, THAT’S WHAT WE PAY THEM TO BE ABLE TO DO. The difference between countries like Britain and America, and those like China, is the security agencies of the former are genuinely looking for people who want to hack soldiers’ heads off in the street or blow themselves up on buses, while mostly ignoring people saying “I disagree with the Government”. China on the other hand, is about monitoring its citizens’ opinions of the Government.

Now, I’m not going to defend in detail the hyperventilating response of the US authorities to people like Snowden and Bradley Manning. Manning, in particular has been vindictively treated, and Snowden is rightly afraid of the same treatment.  But the wikileaks scandal did lead to widespread legitimate questioning by electorates about what is being done in their name and that is a good thing. The USA is in danger of losing sight of what made it powerful – the freedom enjoyed by Americans to think what they will. The suspicion of Government has been replaced by a fawning deference to the intelligence-military-industrial complex. But this is a cultural battle, not a political one.

There’s a reason some things are secret. Large-scale, indiscriminate leaking of information can cost lives if it means agents and sources in hostile countries can be identified. In an ideal world, our Governments wouldn’t need secrets, but we don’t live in an ideal world and there’s always an ideology of the angry – radical islam, before that Communism, anarchism and so forth which demanded surveillance. There’s always going to be a battle between those who favour security, and those who favour openness, in which will be impossible to strike the right balance at all times. What’s important is to keep the tension so that neither security prevents free thought, while allowing spooks to monitor some bad-guys. Libertarians on Twitter, most of whom have absolutely nothing to do with the intelligence agencies, are instinctively outraged about attacks on privacy by state agencies and kick up a knee-jerk fuss without thinking the issue through. As the overlap between Twitter libertarians and Geeks is almost total, internet freedom is felt very personally. Most people (and we live in a democracy) are more outraged when the spooks whom we pay to keep us safe, fail at their task.

It’s too easy as a libertarian to start from a position of “all state action is wrong” then work from there. It’s possible to make the intellectual arguments about how wicked the intelligence agencies are or even deny their utility. Of course they’re there to defend the Government and the State. Only an extremist could think this somehow wrong. Because the one part of the British state which appears to be doing its job is the intelligence agencies who are actually protecting ordinary people. It won’t be the politicians getting blown up on buses. In crying foul when intelligence agencies are doing what we pay them to do, you leave the non-aligned with the impression that Libertarianism is rather childish, and has nothing to say about the problems facing the world today, preferring to imagine a perfect state-free utopia. But Libertarianism is not anarchism. The state has the right to defend itself, and the majority law-abiding population, from those who would seek to use violence and subversion, rather than democracy, to achieve political ends.

Don’t believe we’ve got the balance right? How many countries would let parties which openly call for the break-up of the country to sit in the legislature? That’s allowed basically in Western Europe and the Anglosphere. If you’re prepared to use democratic means (which means persuading voters) you’re legitimate, more or less whatever you want to say.

Clearly, the intelligence agencies have foiled all but a handful of big attacks on our society, and they have done so by quietly watching the enablers and inciters. It seems probable had ‘the not-employed-as-plumbers’ Adebolajo and Adebowale gone into a hardware shop and bought a load of pipes and chemicals, they’d have been lifted for preparing a bomb. The fact these two were known to the intelligence agencies at the time of the Woolwich attack at all means MI5 is doing something right. The fact they weren’t lifted suggests the agencies have a mind on civil liberties. No intelligence agency can be wise to every threat, or use perfect judgement and most people are realistic enough to see that.

If the PRISM data is held, to enable people already of interest to be looked into more closely (and social networks here are vital) then this is understandable, and frankly despite protestations to the contrary, I expect the NSA to be able to do this to US citizens too. This is going to happen anyway, but I’d rather it be in a legal grey area as it is now, which will persuade the spooks to not ‘take the piss‘. During the cold war, Left-wing organisations and trades unions were often accused of being in league with the enemy – the Soviet Union. Most were not, and some like the Communist Party of Great Britain were openly sympathetic to Moscow. MI5 had files on Labour movement figures, many of whom ended up in Government.

Before mass communication, it was easy. You tapped telephone lines, steamed open letters and broke the codes of people you thought might be a wrong ‘un. Laws enabling agencies to do this, in extremis, were enacted. Nowadays it’s a bit harder. The sheer volume of electronic communications leads to agencies to data mine using algorithms to look for data in which they might be interested. The problem is that most extremists are, by nature, thick and incompetent. They’re easy to find by traditional means. The intelligent ones who’re actually capable of organising the big atrocities are harder to pin down. Simple encryption will defeat data-mining of PRISM data. No encryption is perfect, but it requires resources that will only be deployed if the agencies are already looking at you. It’s the network analysis from the thick and incompetent foot-soldiers and human bombs which leads to the clever, effective terrorists.

To me, the Cold War ‘Spycatcher’ stuff on Labour figures is reassuring. MI5 had a look, found nothing of interest and ignored them. People who had been of interest for a bit were not prevented from seeking high office. Preventing politicians of one side from entering office would have led to scandal of epic proportions. The very legal grey area the in which the spooks operate appears to have been a protection far better than any law.

Now, with all intelligence agency behaviour to be subject to laws, laws will be drafted to allow the Government to monitor communications. Given this legal top-cover, the Agencies will do so with alacrity. The volume of data stored, and the freedom with which it will be used, will rise exponentially. Any competent plotters will regard the Internet as fundamentally insecure, and will find other ways to communicate thus rendering them invisible. Furthermore, there’s the opportunity cost: spooks will spend all their time checking out people who tweet they’re going to Blow the Airport sky-high, and missing the next competent killer as a result.

The spooks belong in the shadows, collecting information, but being careful what they do with it, lest anyone find out how. William Hague said “we’ve nothing to fear from GCHQ”, and I agree with him. But the argument of Labour home secretaries that “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” (which I’ve long thought should be criminalised, punishable by 42-days in prison) does not follow. Data, in the volumes it’s generated these days, can be mined to create an entirely false picture of a person. A number of angry tweets will be used to demonstrate in court a violent personality disorder. An essay which in context is obviously dripping with irony, will be used at face-value out of context to demonstrate the opposite of what’s meant. (*innocent face*). Too much data means the wood will not be seen for the trees, as innocent people fall under suspicion.

The East-German Stasi used to monitor all and sundry, keeping detailed records of pretty ordinary lives. To what end? They failed to spot the imminent collapse of the regime because they were too busy recording the conversations of playwrights. Couldn’t happen here? Look at the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA): it was supposed to bring what was already happening under regulatory oversight. What it allowed was local councils to see who was sleeping where, to prevent benefit fraud. The law supposedly designed to protect the British people caused the (presumably) unintended consequence of council bin-snooping and so extended the power of the state.

Britain is not becoming like China where free expression of political thought is illegal. Nor has the British government over-reacted to a now-minuscule terrorist threat, like the Americans have since 9/11, and thrown all oversight of their intelligence agencies out of the window, with criticism of the Government agencies deemed unpatriotic. There is a judgement to be made. So long as the spooks have at least as much to fear as a result of getting it wrong, then it’s probably right to say ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’ in this instance (…42 days in gaol? I’ll go quietly, yer-‘onner). The right people: people who want to blow themselves up on public transport, are subject to surveillance, and no-one should think this is wrong. It’s what we pay intelligence agencies to do. There have been remarkably few stories of people incorrectly so targeted, unlike the bin snoopers brought about by RIPA.

If PRISM became wholly and undeniably legal, then the risks the spooks run by using its data would fall, and the temptation to abuse it would therefore rise. So. Let’s not give ’em the temptation. The Data and Communications Bill in particular would force exactly the sort of network data contained in Prism to be stored, but thankfully it has been killed off by the Liberal Democrats and some Tories. (You see why I like the coalition? The sillier instincts of both parties are tempered) This bill would have given the intelligence agencies powers they neither should have, nor need to foil the current threat of Islamist extremist terrorism.

However the spooks are doing it now, semi-legally or not, it’s working well. So it doesn’t need fixing.

7 replies
  1. LR
    LR says:

    This was a really convincing post, thanks! I'd previously been mid-knee jerk to the whole of PRISM and you've talked me out of the tree.

    I agree, some surveillance is a necessary evil and as long as that's where it remains: a legal grey, we should be ok.

  2. VoluntaryAnarch
    VoluntaryAnarch says:

    The problem is that, as you point out, serious plots will not be picked up through online data-trawling, they are smarter and more prepared than to casually announce it online.

    The security services are good at what they do and identify many dangerous people – if they have reasonable suspicions about an individual or group, surely they can apply for a warrant to access their data?

    I don't see how this is an unreasonable request. Allowing the security services to access such data, with a warrant, successfully balances liberty and security.

  3. Murray Rothbard
    Murray Rothbard says:

    Then why not put Orwellian CCTV in every home. If we can trust the state it will surely save lives? Those doing nothing wrong have nothing to fear!
    Only criminals and terrorists could object.

    Why not put a microchip in the brain of every baby at birth that the state can use to render a person inactive should they be about to commit a terrorist act, crime or riot. If we can trust the state it would surely save lives. Those doing nothing wrong have nothing to fear! Only criminals and terrorists could object.

    Of course we can trust the state, politicians are public servants who never put self interest above the common good. (Well apart from fiddling expenses, taking bribes from lobbyists and employing their families at the taxpayers expense, etc, etc)

    Of course there is a terrorist risk, and it may be that a small number of lives could be lost because of restrictions on blanket intelligence snooping.

    However, the number of deaths caused by terrorists is nothing compared to those caused by states that are allowed to control over their people as they see fit.


  4. malpas
    malpas says:

    And what if you want to form a group to disagree with the current rulers.
    OK for them to track and watch what you do?
    And when will it be used to see how you vote?

  5. Devil's Kitchen
    Devil's Kitchen says:


    "The state has the right to defend itself, and the majority law-abiding population…"

    No, damn it! The state has a duty to defend the people who elect it—it is the state's Prime Directive, if you will.

    Other than that, fine.


  6. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    Malpas, Murray Rothbard. Of course we need to watch the watchers. That's probably the major point of democracy. But having intelligence agencies with secrets doesn't mean we're on the road to putting microchips in babies' brains or a telescreen in the corner of the room.

    Grow up, you two.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The problem is that we have seen the abuse of information gathering for political purposes by the FBI and the IRS. We have also that this president sees his enemies as Americans with opposing political views rather than who hold a certain religiously based world view requiring it's domination.
    These people have shown that they are as willing to turn the government's power on their own citizens as easily as on foreign agents to protect their own citizens. I am not tibalist enough to think switching parties will close the door that has been opened now that the press has shown to be compliant.
    Look these people couldn't stop the Boston bombers with the Russians tipping them off. How much is politics influencing the use of what the data mining is telling them.


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