An important story in the news during the summer was the claim that the American intelligence agencies were tapping, seemingly at will, into the data traffic of a number of major internet corporation, including the well-known names behind the technology enabling you to read this blog entry and me to write it.
The so-called PRISM programme meant that just about any use of the internet anywhere in the world was likely to be subject to official surveillance of one sort or another. The exception appeared to be for US citizens, protected as they are from their own government by their constitution.
Or so they thought. Reports suggested that the US and UK intelligence agencies swapped targets, meaning that the British spied on US citizens and then passed on anything interesting to the American authorities without breaching US law.
In some countries, these revelations have been big news. The constitutional or human right to privacy has been violated by the actions of the state. In places that have, within living memory, been Communist dictatorships, the idea that democratic governments could behave in this way is shocking.
But reaction in the UK has been much more modest. That the government should conduct covert surveillance to counter terrorist threats is expected, not outrageous. In some ways, the bigger public scandal seems to be that a newspaper has published information about this surveillance at all: knowing how they are watched will make it easier for future terrorists to avoid detection. The head of MI5 has just given a public lecture to say as much.
Overall, there is probably a consensus here that the government has need on occasion to conduct covert surveillance and that the agencies that do this should be under some kind of democratic oversight. The newspapers and the spy agencies might differ on the balance to be struck between these two goals, but nevertheless I think this is where agreement would be located.
There is another question, though, that I think is much more important. The point is not that a newspaper published stolen information about extent of government internet surveillance, but that much of the leaked information was from the UK, and the theft was in the United States.
Edward Snowden, the man who stole the information, was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor to the American National Security Agency, based in Hawaii. The British government has claimed in a court submission that he stole 58,000 documents, with contents so sensitive that the lives of British agents would be endangered if these documents fell into the wrong hands. Given that Edward Snowden’s flight from Hawaii has taken him to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, it is likely that this information has.
The question is how come an American contractor could get hold of such sensitive British information? There has been a breach of security, but where?
Was it a surprise to the British security establishment that an American contractor had access to such confidential information in the first place? Perhaps it is routine that such people can examine sensitive British files. If so, it is a substantial expression of Anglo-American interdependence (or perhaps, until we know that British agents can inspect American files, the “inter” prefix should be left out). There are 480,000 people with Edward Snowden’s level of security clearance, in which case it was surely a matter of time before disaster struck.
The alternative is that the Anglo-American information exchange is not as free-flowing as this, and that Edward Snowden hacked into the British systems. That is an equally alarming prospect, for if one man from a friendly country can tunnel his way in, surely organised teams from not so friendly countries can do the same. By this reading, it is not Edward Snowden’s visit to China and Russia that put dangerous information in their hands.
In the modern world, conflicts between countries are being fought out in cyberspace. This is an example. Because nobody is being immediately hurt, it does not look like international conflict, but that is exactly what it is.
If the UK has thrown in its lot with the Americans in this conflict, and there are good and respectable reasons why it might wish to do so, isn’t that something that democratic politics should have decided? Instead, the bafflement expressed by most politicians and the denial put forward by some suggests that this has happened despite our democracy, and not because of it.