Matthew Parris

Spy if you must, but don’t give the game away

I’ve never assumed my emails and internet activity are completely private. Has anyone?

Spy if you must, but don’t give the game away
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The Snoopers’ Charter. I ought to care about this. I’m a sort of libertarian. I believe in personal freedom. I’m a trustee of Index on Censorship. The state as Big Brother is everything I’ve always fought in politics. So why can’t I quite summon the requisite indignation? Why do I find all this Edward Snowden stuff vaguely irritating? Why does the crusading column for the Times, railing against state surveillance, somehow keep failing me, though time and again I’ve opened my laptop and tried to make a start?

Partly, I think, because as a longstanding and vehement opponent of British military adventuring in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve believed (and always argued) that our resources are better directed not to regime change abroad, but to protecting ourselves at home. We need to invest in counter-terrorism; to make good use of intelligence, tracking domestic threats and keeping tabs on possible terrorists. Not being a spy, I don’t know how this is best done, but am loth to start barking at the professionals who think they do. Is it really fair to complain that invading foreign countries is not the way to tackle the security threat at home — and then to complain when the British state invests in non-military means of underwriting our security?

Realising that this would be a lazy justification for accepting any or every incursion into the private sphere, should I then develop strong views on the proper limits to state snooping? How far should they go? What should and what should not be done in the name of national security? Shouldn’t I at least reach firm conclusions on that?

The honest answer is that no timeless definition of ‘legitimate’ surveillance occurs to me. One of the reasons for this is that it must depend on the level of the threat, and I neither know what that is, nor trust the assessments made either by the security hawks or the Guardian doves. Perhaps nobody knows.

But there’s a more enervating reason for my apathy about official snooping. I doubt the claims made both for its usefulness and for its intrusiveness. How much does it really matter?

Consider GCHQ’s ‘dragnet surveillance’: the trawling of the haystack of citizens’ electronic communications for the needle of terrorist activity. The lasting efficacy of this kind of surveillance strikes me as having been greatly exaggerated.

That doesn’t mean it has no potential to creep further into our lives. I laugh off politicians’ assurances that information gained will only ever be used for the purposes for which it was sought: counter-terrorism. We shouldn’t accept undertakings about spooks’ or police officers’ self-denying ordinances. If while looking for one thing interceptors find another, it would be naive to think the wise monkeys of state security will block eyes, ears and mouths. It would only need one appalling case of a child-abuse ring whose existence became clear to agents looking for terrorists, not paedophiles — and who therefore declined to interrogate the metadata or tip off the police — and those Chinese walls would be in shreds.

Nor should we be confident that the distinction between ‘metadata’ (a general summary of the type rather than the content of internet traffic) and detailed content will prove as easy to apply as theory suggests. Hawks may cruise at high altitude; but if they see anything, they’ll dive. In the end, if agents of the state are going to be scrutinising internet metadata, then any criminal activity — perhaps even tax evasion — will become fair game.

This part of the ‘hands off, Big Brother’ campaigners’ case I accept: all the way to their conclusion that what we email, where we browse, even (via our smartphones’ location data) where we go, will in time be accessible to agents of the British government. Already it’s accessible to a range of internet providers and other global corporations.

But then we’ll adjust, won’t we? I don’t pick my nose in the street, because I know people can see me. I didn’t write home from boarding school that I hated Mr Milne, because I knew our letters home might be read. We don’t shout sensitive information into our mobile phones in a railway carriage, because we know people can hear.

I have never assumed my emails would be hidden from other eyes. I’ve always known the state can intercept letters — and never even bothered to find out in what circumstances. I know phones can be tapped. To access my voice messages, key my birthday: 7849. I have downloaded some rude stuff on the internet knowing very well that people who wanted to track this, could. I’ve leapt naked into a river knowing that if any fool were interested they could be ready with a telescope — and thought: well so what?

As it happens I don’t do, or write, or send, or access, or receive anything unlawful, or anything threatening state security. Should I ever wish to, there would surely be ways to cover my tracks. We adjust to the knowledge of when we are being watched, all animals do, and I rather think that the average 21st-century city-dweller maintains at least as much privacy as the average peasant in the Dark Ages.

It follows — and this is why I say that none of this matters — that the advantage conferred on spies through access to traffic whose users had thought it private is strictly temporary. It lasts as long as the user remains unaware. The Snowden ‘revelations’ may have been a bloody nuisance to British and American intelligence but will have only hastened somewhat the realisation by the bad guys that there are ways of observing them.

They’ll adjust. Serious terrorists doubtless know all this. Surveillance is likely to take only amateurs by surprise, and intelligence gained by stealth is hard to use without giving the game away to professionals.

The amazing thing is that in the powers it is seeking from Parliament, government is doing just that: giving the game away. Are they telling us everything, then? I almost hope not.