GCHQ needs to face the new political reality – to justify its very existence

Internet grenadeBrussels, 10 November 2014. So the new head of GCHQ thinks US technology companies are becoming “the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists (Guardian, 03 November 2014). Mr Hannigan’s ideas are so out of touch with present-day political reality that it is difficult to know what to say.

What is that political reality? It is that no-one, bar the most naive of politicians, trusts what government intelligence agencies say any longer. The very term intelligence has become a misnomer. As Edward Snowden has shown, the NSA, GCHQ and their brethren around the world appear to work together mainly to ensure that their own grip on power is maintained.

This cooperation has largely subsumed any loyalty such agencies have to their own governments. GCHQ’s latest pronouncement simply follows the pattern, repeating the claims from America’s NSA that the commercial information-providers’ wish to put customers first endangers its ability to protect the public.

GCHQ and its UK intelligence sisters have yet to wake up to the new reality, which is that threats of terrorism designed to raise fear among ordinary politicians and citizens are no longer sufficient to justify an abuse of power that has become apparent.

What observers like myself are waiting for is a sign that these agencies are beginning to recognise this new state of affairs, that they understand they are facing the same level of public scepticism, scorn even, that is now emerging on the other side of the Atlantic.

A serious public inquiry may be one answer. Not the limited editions that have taken place so far in the UK and in Brussels; their remits carefully circumscribed or powers limited. But one that can obtain convincing answers to the real questions people want answered. For example how many people are employed on programmes like Tempora? Or Prism? What are their budgets? And exactly what rights do British citizens have to their own privacy?

The agencies will say giving these answers could endanger their operational capabilities. But right now, in this post-Snowden era, we are so far beyond such fears that statements like this simply look out of date.

How far beyond? I am talking about a crisis of trust in government. One that has seeped into everyday discourse across the western world. A crisis not driven by suspicions of nepotism or corruption or a selfish political class, but by wholesale distrust of over-powerful government agencies with little democratic oversight.

Distrust of government is nothing new of course. The purpose of some ministries, the DTI for example, was being questioned 10 years ago. But at least such administrations had a remit of sorts.

The real cancer set in when certain agencies commenced to believe that their own responsibilities are more important than individual liberties in the societies they are sworn to protect, and began taking an unhealthy interest in personal affairs. That was when people like myself started experiencing the “strange problems with the electronics” that characterise such interest, and which I have written about elsewhere.

For most people, strange behaviour from computers or communications can be put down to gremlins in the machine. But, as Edward Snowden’s revelations have confirmed, the casual dismissal of such difficulties can also be traced to a more sinister reality. For at least eight years, anyone with even a basic IT understanding could witness the increasing number of strange lockups, slowdowns and crashes of their equipment, especially when online. Such problems seem to be particularly prevalent among journalists, campaigners or anyone with an interest in political protest.

We now know that such difficulties are not always software gremlins. That, very frequently, they are down to the increasing lust for our personal data from government or government-sponsored agencies, driven by faulty political dogma and with near limitless power to view and exploit information that once we considered private.

Some people have responded by altering their work patterns to cut the amount of time they spend online. Some have bought separate tablets or iPads for surfing without endangering core data. And a few more unfortunate colleagues have suffered so much from these attentions that they have come close to going insane, or withdrawn from the internet completely (like one third of all Americans, apparently).

The political consequence then that the spies and eavesdroppers now have to face is how to justify their existence. And that to the very people they are spying on, to those now asking why their taxes should pay for thousands of employees in expensive headquarters buildings to pry into personal affairs.

My own personal reality these days is that I have to protect my communications against constant assault from unknown sources. I have gone through three different broadband providers, and cannot use a smartphone because of its monitoring capabilities. The internet seems to have become a deeply hostile environment into which no-one may venture without protection. A place of wild marches inhabited by highwaymen.

And I’m not alone in this experience. Friends and colleagues have the same problems in the UK and abroad. Unfortunately, many are unwilling to talk about it because they fear disclosing their inability to protect their own personal data. Of course, such self-censorship merely serves to perpetuate the problem.

Who do I blame for this degraded and hostile working environment? The intelligence agencies, their promotion of a faulty political agenda to serve their own ends, and the consequent proliferation of spying and counter-spying tools for use across the internet that leaves nobody safe.

So I listen to the pronouncements of Mr Hannigan and his ilk and I laugh. We do not live in the same reality. He belongs to the world’s new rulers, the intelligence agencies. I belong to the rest, the ruled. He is demanding what I consider a lunatic abuse of power. I see it as my duty to work to stop it. Or what was the sacrifice of our parents for?

© Philip Hunt, 2014.

Further reading

The Control Culture

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