Sea change emerging in attitudes to government spying


Speaking as one who is proud of my “la-di-dah, airy-fairy” views on online privacy, I feel that Primate Minister David Cameron’s veiled threat yesterday (that steps may have to be taken against newspapers that continue to publish stories based on NSA leaks) shows all too clearly how out of touch he is with the views of his electorate.

The continuing streams of stories on the extent of NSA and GCHQ spying are writing headlines precisely because they make clear the extent of these agencies’ abuse of power, and the failure of the British and American governments over many years to take them in hand.

These organisations have spied on, and continue to spy on, millions of ordinary citizens around the world. Some of us may have had our suspicions but, without evidence, have been powerless to say anything without being subjected to the usual ridicule the intelligence services trot out every time some naif dares to complain.

Now we have that evidence. Edward Snowden can for his actions be considered a man of conscience. Unlike Mr Cameron, who almost every day demonstrates his failure to get to grips with what the future will see as the most severe crisis of legitimacy to face his government.

This issue is one of a changing climate of opinion. Resentment of such practices has been building for years, awaiting only the weakness that would form the first crack in the structure. The crack was the emergence of evidence that powerful people and governments have suffered the same unwarranted spying as ordinary citizens.

Now the climate has warmed – the NSA and GCHQ cannot expect that things will cool down and they can go back to their old ways. In addition to pointed statements from the President of France and Germany’s Chancellor, the European Parliament has issued a report (see here), and has sent a delegation to Washington this week. A group of British MPs has suggested the committee that oversees the UK’s intelligence services is unfit for the purpose, and the United Nations has issued a draft resolution on online privacy (attached here).

Reasoning people and their governments do not want Stasi-like spying on their communications, their actions and the way they arrive at decisions. Such behaviour is no longer acceptable; it has contributed directly to the downfall of one European government in the last 25 years, as well as being characteristic of some of the worst aspects of dictatorship.

You would think that the lesson is clear. And some governments do seem to have taken that lesson on board; President Obama has promised a new regime with greater accountability for the NSA from now on (though the jury remains out on whether he will deliver).

But I am embarrassed by the deafening silence emanating from the British government. Within Europe alone, Francois Hollande has spoken out, Angela Merkel has protested, as has the Belgian Prime Minister, the Spanish government, the President of the European Council, the European Parliament and others. From Britain? Nothing.

Unfortunately, silence will no longer suffice. For those government agencies that have systematically abused their power for years, and appeared immune to any kind of criticism or democratic control, the temperature has changed.

We have what the climatologists would call a four-degree temperature rise. The waters have risen, and new and more constrained boundaries to action have emerged. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic need to draw up policies that recognise that new reality. I see signs of that recognition emerging in the United States and in continental Europe. I see no signs yet in the UK, apart from among some backbench Members of Parliament.

Channel 4 News (UK) yesterday asked Malcolm Gladwell for his view. He replied, “The NSA issue is one of legitimacy, and the lesson of history is that if you ignore the importance of legitimacy, then bad things will happen to you.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

© Philip Hunt, 2013.


UN – UK’s reputation being damaged by official responses to Edward Snowden

More information

British Parliament Early Day Motion (EDM) 576 – The Intelligence and Security Committee is not fit for purpose

European Parliament report “National programmes for mass surveillance in the EU”

United Nations draft resolution on the right to online privacy

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