Funny old week for the surveillance debate in the UK.
Sir Andrew Parker, the new Head of MI5, gave his first public speech and used it to rail against the nerve The Guardian newspaper had to release details contained in the US intelligence files pinched by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The nub of what The Guardian revealed was that GCHQ (the UK’s surveillance centre) was operating a system known as Tempora, a secret electronic surveillance program accessing data carried on transatlantic fibre-optic cables. Apparently the data collected is immense (21 petabytes a day) this being stored for three days (though related metadata is stored for thirty days). According to Snowden Tempora had made the UK into a ‘surveillance superpower’.
Now when I read this I can’t say I was particularly surprised. To my mind it is obvious that as computers become more powerful, e-storage becomes cheaper and cheaper and the algorithms manipulating said data increasingly sophisticated that security services would become more-and-more addicted to the acquisition, warehousing and analysis of the information flying around the e-universe. And this would be especially the case in the UK: you have only to look at how enthusiastically Britain has embraced the CCTV camera (there’s one for every 14 people!) to see that ours is an e-surveillance paradise. We love being watched!
Which makes it all the more amusing when the week began with Chris Huhne, the disgraced former Liberal-Democrat MP, claiming that during his time in cabinet he was told nothing about GCHQ’s Tempora or the NSA’s PRISM or about their ‘extraordinary capability to vacuum up and store personal emails, voice contact, social network activity and even internet searches’. And worse, the National Security Council (attended by ministers and the heads of the security services and GCHQ) of which Huhne was a member was never briefed regarding Tempora. The answer to the question ‘who watches the watchers’ is ‘not Chris Huhne’.
Anyway, back to Sir Andrew Parker. One of the points he made in his speech was that, ‘We only apply intrusive tools and capabilities against terrorists and others threatening national security. The law requires we only collect and access information that we really need to perform our functions, in this case tackling the threat of terrorism’.
The weasel-words here are ‘only apply intrusive tools’.
Sir Andrew went on: ‘In some quarters there seems to be a vague notion that we monitor everyone and all their communications, browsing at will through people’s private lives for anything that looks interesting’. This is, he added ‘utter nonsense’.
So while GCHQ doesn’t monitor and apply intrusive tools to everyone’s communication there is no denial that they COLLECT such data and run it through their algorithms checking for any correlations with known badniks. And to make such correlations GCHQ has to collect (or have access to) ALL the data and that includes the data held by the banks (including that relating to debit/credit card transactions), Inland Revenue files, CCTV cameras, medical records (if the DoH can ever get the thing to work!) etc. etc.
So I think it’s a fair assumption to make that:
1) GCHQ e-intelligence gathering goes far beyond Tempora;
2) GCHQ will continue to develop its e-intelligence gathering capability;
3) There ain’t nothing we can do to stop this happening, MI5 having that wonderful get-out of jail-free card called ‘national security interests’.
Now the big threat of this isn’t, as The Guardian and others fret about, the erosion of civil liberties and of privacy, those are abandoned every time you sign up to FaceBook or begin Tweeting. No, the real threat is that governments and the digerati (the people with access to the information held by GCHQ) will use it to begin manipulating the people of Britain.
As Jenni-Fur says in Invent-10n:
YESTERDAY THEY WERE SERVING YOU …
TODAY THEY’RE WATCHING YOU …
TOMORROW THEY’LL BE CONTROLLING YOU!