State Surveillance – A Problem Of Public Perception
The impression given by recent events, not least the revelations of Edward Snowden, is that ordinary citizens are now under ever increasing levels of surveillance from the state. For many this intrusion into the privacy of individuals is unacceptable and requires action to reduce the state’s ability to do so through either technical or legislative means. In short the state’s spy agencies are out of control and need to be reined in.
My belief is that in truth, in terms of the effort put into surveillance activities by the government, relatively little has changed. The two key elements that have changed are the technology of communication, with the evolution of the Internet and social media, and crucially the level of trust the average citizen has in the government and state institutions, driven not just by past government failures but also by public perception shaped by the media.
The revolution in communications technology has led to an explosion in the amount of information generated across the world. We are currently in a second, mobile generated, revolution that is further increasing the vast quantities of data being generated. Indeed IBM estimate that, if all the information ever generated by man since the dawn of mankind was added up, 90% of that information would have been generated in the last two years. From this perspective, far from increasing its surveillance coverage the state is struggling, and failing, to keep up.
The most radical change within the timeframe of my experience of intelligence is in the level of trust in governments and politicians and the degree of cynicism shown by the public towards authority. While in general a positive development, when combined with a distorted view of the different intelligence agencies frequently promulgated by the media, it has given rise to widespread misconceptions as to what those agencies are doing and why.
In my experience UK government agencies are risk averse and bureaucratic. Individuals working in these organizations are conscientious and driven to achieve the best results they can but do not knowingly break the law although in some cases there can be confusion over what exactly the law is, particularly in those cases where technology has outpaced the regulations covering a particular subject.
The Recent House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee review would tend to reflect this view. The committee's 140-page review, published on 12 March 15, argues that while agencies “do not seek to circumvent the law” the current status quo is “unnecessarily complicated and – crucially – lacks transparency”. They called for a new law to replace current “piecemeal” legislation governing how the UK's intelligence agencies spy on its citizens.
This lack of transparency is more a function of a failure to update old laws combined with the gradual opening up of the rest of government over time, which has ironically highlighted those areas that remain closed.
A separate but not unimportant area is the care that a government agency might or might not take over individual information. Due to the classification of most of the information collected by the various agencies such information is generally protected to a far higher extent than may be the case in other government departments, the HMRC disc loss of 25 million child benefit recipients’ records being a notorious example.
The Snowden revelations have generated concern that the state is becoming too intrusive. Despite these revelations there is an acceptance by many, although not all, that some level of surveillance is necessary. A mature view therefore needs to be taken to achieve a balance. Without doubt that will require more transparent legislation and regulation, which should be welcomed. However caution needs to be taken about constraining the agencies any further. The threats faced by the UK are genuine and in some cases publicly underestimated.
Some have argued that successful terrorist attacks are a price worth paying as a cost of maintaining individual privacy. The agencies themselves note wryly that this is not an argument that seems to get much coverage whenever a successful terrorist attack takes place, when the focus is on asking why the security services failed to prevent the attack in the first place.
In short my view is that the changing view of UK government spying agencies and their threat to the privacy of individuals has more to do with evolving public perception than changes within those agencies themselves or any changes to government policy. The media has played in a large part in reinforcing the perception that the government is increasingly ‘Big brother’ and is conspiring to spy on every citizen. I believe the reality is that there is no such malign intent. There are many other criminal and commercial threats to privacy; the government isn’t the real problem.
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