Saturday, January 18, 2014
We’ve not had the words to talk about our security services. Dishfire, Prism: we’re now learning some
What we have no words for we cannot discuss except crudely. The latest revelation about the security services brings a new word to our growing vocabulary: Dishfire. This week’s expose reveals the NSA collecting information from hundreds of millions of text messages a day. While messages from US phone numbers are removed from the database, GCHQ used it to search the metadata of “untargeted and unwarranted” communications belonging to British citizens.
We are not so much free citizens, innocent until proven guilty, but rather, as one of the Dishfire slides says, a “rich data set awaiting exploitation”. Prism, Tempora, Upstream, Bullrun – as our language grows we begin to speak with greater clarity. We move from James Bond fantasies to a greater understanding of what the intelligence services actually do in our name and with our money. Is indiscriminate surveillance the best way to protect democracy?
It is proving bad for business. Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are trying to salvage their reputations by fighting against their own governments to protect customer data. Vodafone’s head of privacy spoke out this week, asking the governments of the 25 countries in which it operates for the right to publish the number of demands it receives for interceptions and customer data.
The company wants to follow its US counterparts AT&T and Verizon and publish a transparency report – but of the 25 markets, including India, Turkey and South Africa, where it operates, the UK is one of the most restrictive in terms of the public’s right to know.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Ripa) Act 2000 states that: “Where an interception warrant has been issued or renewed, it shall be the duty of every person falling within subsection (2) to keep secret all the matters mentioned in subsection (3).” In plain English: those in receipt of a warrant must keep secret not only the contents of the warrant but its very existence. Neither Vodafone, nor any other phone company, can tell the public how many demands it receives. The penalty for disclosure is a prison term of up to five years.
Ripa was controversial when introduced, but it was an improvement on an earlier version, which required everyone to give up their passwords to police on pain of prison. That’s not to say the current law would be unwelcome in an oppressive society. It demands loyalty to the state, official secrecy without a public interest defence. Telecommunications companies are specifically named in the law to stay schtum. How can we have a meaningful conversation about wiretapping telephones when even the number of warrants is a state secret?
In the US, the public often learn about the FBI’s use of covert surveillance in court. Their methods and practices are examined as evidence brought to trial. Yesterday Barack Obama announced new curbs on his security agencies. He has made moves to respond, as Britain has not, to public disquiet.
In the UK, Ripa forbids the contents of interceptions from being used in court. That is problematic not only for justice but also for public accountability. Being tested in the courts is one of the ways we could learn how interception is employed. Is it tightly targeted against those whom the state has probable cause to suspect; or a dragnet based on little more than prejudice? We don’t know.
In George Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak meant the dictionaries became smaller not bigger. Fewer words meant fewer thoughts. What we have no language for we cannot discuss. For too long we’ve had no language to discuss the intelligence services. Now a dictionary is being written. It will be interesting to see what new words are added.