The Daily Star
Monday, March 23, 2015
By Michael Glackin
George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece “1984,” described a world of omnipresent government surveillance of its citizens. A world in which the rulers even invented a new language, Newspeak, in order to distort the true meaning of words and suppress dissent. Orwell’s novel, published in 1949, was largely, though not entirely, based on the regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But today his nightmare vision of society has worrying parallels with the shocking extent of the British government’s intrusion into our day-to-day lives.
The British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee officially confirmed last week that the government was engaged in mass surveillance of the communications of millions of people. But in a long-awaited report into the revelations made by U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden two years ago, the ISC insisted this intrusive surveillance carried out by intelligence agencies was perfectly legal.
That’s because the intelligence services’ trawling of the emails, text messages and other online communications of law-abiding individuals isn’t actually mass surveillance. In a nod to Orwell’s Newspeak, the ISC prefers to call it “bulk interception” and “bulk collection.” As someone who has been embarrassed by the fact that I speak one language, I am now ashamed to discover I don’t even understand the language I thought I could speak.
According to the ISC, bulk interception or collection only becomes surveillance when the information is read by a human. Because most of the vast amounts of material collected by GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, are never actually read by anyone, it doesn’t qualify as mass surveillance.
But why collect information if you are not going to read it? Surely if any of the content is being stored it increases the likelihood that it will be accessed at some point? The ISC report insists that GCHQ only stores a small amount of the material it intercepts, but the exact figure is redacted so we have no idea how much is being held, or how long it is kept by the intelligence agencies.
The intelligence services insist they need to do all this, and much more, because they are searching for small needles of information about terrorists in the vast haystack of online communications. But as the record shows, and as The Guardian newspaper neatly put it, the biggest security problem appears to be the abject failure of the intelligence agencies to hold on to all the needles they pull out of haystacks.
Lest we forget, despite all its online snooping, the intelligence services failed to prevent a number of atrocities in the United Kingdom – from the London bombings of 2005 to the murder of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 – despite the fact that the perpetrators in both cases were on the radar of intelligence services. Mohammed Emwazi, better known as ISIS killer Jihadi John, would not be in Syria butchering Westerners were it not for the intelligence services allowing him to escape from the U.K. while he was under their scrutiny.
By any sane rationale, these failures make the case for a better organized intelligence service. But in the twisted Orwellian prism of the government and the ISC they add up instead to increasing the powers of the spooks to collect Internet data on the rest of us, creating more hay for them to trawl through.
The ISC has essentially given the spooks the benefit of the doubt over the legality of their surveillance. They won’t need to in future, because the government intends to formally legalize the practice, or in the committee’s Newspeak, make the process more “transparent.”
Yet while calling for more transparency, the ISC also flatly rejected demands that a judge, rather than a government minister, should be responsible for authorizing the warrants – of which there were 517,236 issued last year – allowing “intrusive surveillance.” The mantra, repeatedly trotted out by government, is that the innocent have nothing to fear from its snooping.
That’s a lie. On the same day that the ISC was busy recommending more transparency, the government was busy trying to keep secret the extent of the intelligence services’ unlawful behavior. Almost unnoticed last week, lawyers acting for GCHQ, MI5, and MI6, insisted that the agencies should not have to admit whether they intercepted legally privileged conversations between lawyers and their clients.
The demand was made during a case before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal brought by the Libyan politician Abdel-Hakim Belhadj and his family. They were seized in a British-American rendition operation in 2004 and returned to be tortured by Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Tripoli.
The IPT deals with complaints about the conduct of the intelligence services. Belhadj is currently suing the government over its role in his rendition. His lawyers believe the intelligence services eavesdropped on their confidential communications in order to give the government an unfair advantage in court.
Belhadj is not a terrorist, and his court case against the government does not threaten the lives of British people. He is simply someone the government wants to silence, and based on the ISC report, that is enough for his communications with his lawyers to be legally intercepted.
The intelligence services play a crucial role in protecting the United Kingdom. But there is no evidence that mass surveillance of our Internet activity is making us safer. On the contrary there is plenty of evidence that intelligence failures have cost lives. Giving mass surveillance a retrospective legal basis will not change this, whatever the government decides to call it.
Michael Glackin,is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 23, 2015, on page 7.