Monday, 11 November 2013



In reading the ‘Comments’ made following the report of the BBC on the public interrogation of Britain’s three spy chiefs on 7 November ( I was struck by how many times the adage ‘you’ve nothing to worry about surveillance if you’re not doing anything wrong’ was brandished in defence of what the British Security Services are doing.

The problem with this argument is that ‘wrong’ is a very mutable concept which is apt to change – often quite radically – over a surprisingly short period of time. Considering that the last SUCCESSFUL prosecution for blasphemy was in 1977 (just thirty-six years ago!) tells me that the (relatively) liberal country we live in is a recent construct. Fifty years ago it was a crime to bad-mouth God or to be a practicing homosexual, and the law (and much of society) was unconcerned about those who penalised or persecuted others for being black or female.  Fifty years ago what was considered ‘wrong’ was profoundly different from what we consider ‘wrong’ today.

'Wrong' is an ever moving target. What is perceived to be ‘wrong’ today may not be ‘wrong’ tomorrow.

And how quickly the mood and sensibilities of a country can change is, I would suggest, illustrated by the growth of the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement in the USA and the emergent of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece. These exemplify how quickly the political and moral outlook of a country can alter (especially as a result of economic set-backs). To my mind this is what makes the collection and storage of so much information by our Security Services (and by other organisations) so worrying.

Let us say that for some unknown reason Britain in twenty years makes a sudden shift to the right or the left and a new, more draconian ethos takes hold when homosexuality is seen as a bad thing or that Jews were once again branded as untermenschen. Then it would be a relatively simple task for our Security Services to access their databases and identify those who had bought Gay Times or Diva, or to make a search for those who had attended a synagogue.

THAT is what makes the collection and storage of surveillance information so troubling: not how it IS being used but how it MIGHT be used. It is not the present we should be worrying about but the future and that is why the debate about what is collected by GCHQ, how long it is stored and how it is managed is so important.

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