Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Spooked by Technology

There's been a lot of controversy in the intelligence world lately.  There's no doubt about the challenges facing intelligence agencies the world over - terrorism is global, the impact of terrorist attacks dreadful.  Those of us who live in democracies have to accept that there is a balancing act that needs to be squared - do we stamp all over everybody's liberties or do we risk letting the bad guys go by acknowledging the freedoms that democracy stands for?

It's a difficult enough situation when looked at from a pure intelligence perspective; add the egos of politicians and the arrogance of journalists into the mix and the man in the street is hard pushed to know what is reasonable and what isn't.

I personally didn't bat an eyelid at the 'revelation' a few months ago that revealed that UK emails were being routinely scanned for keywords that might indicate a terrorist attack.  There were two reasons for this.  First, it seems to be a sensible thing to do - there are millions of emails floating across the UK, let alone internationally, every day and some of these will refer to illegal activities.  Most won't.  Most will be thanking friends and family for attending the surprise party for Aunt Mable, many will be general chit chat, some will be business related.  The same can be said for the many Facebook entries, the Tweets, the text messages and the myriad other ways we communicate with each other. MI6, MI5 and GCHQ have finite resources so although technically every message can be scanned and read electronically, in reality only a small fraction can be physically read by a real person.  These guys are busy, so unless you're a terrorist or some other criminal you shouldn't be too concerned.

The other reason I didn't go eyelid batting is that I thought we all knew this anyway.  Then I remembered that I had dealt with people on the periphery of this technology in the early part of the Century - perhaps I'd learned something that was on the secret list and forgotten that it was a secret.  It doesn't matter now - the cat's well and truly out of the bag and I never mentioned it because - well - I thought everybody knew.

But now, following the revelations by Edward Snowden, the American who passed loads of classified documents to the press, the intelligence community says it is in turmoil.  Even worse than that, the heads of the three agencies mentioned above have been summoned to a Select Committee of MPs to be grilled on their actions.  Apart from the obvious point that we have to just accept that the three guys who turned up today - and unlike our energy providers they didn't shun parliament - are the people that they say they are.  They're the intelligence community, for goodness sake!  Deception is their stock in trade.

So British TV has been treated to a spectacle of a group of people professionally trained to lie while constructing a world of smoke and mirrors interviewing the heads of the intelligence services.

Accountability is an important part of democracy, as is freedom.  These three guys and the people who work for them are working flat out to keep us as safe as can be managed without trampling on too many civil liberties.  Perhaps sitting in front of the MPs and answering searching questions is an opportunity to explain this but hopefully not at the expense of running their organisations. 

I don't know if Snowden's actions can be justified or whether they have caused real harm or not to the intelligence community (we'll never know, because this level of subterfuge is their day job), but I'm OK with them reading my emails.  I think most people shouldn't be too bothered about their Facebook or twitter feeds being intercepted.  Perhaps what is needed is a level of honesty - just state that a certain amount of electronic traffic is going to be scanned, make it a part of day-to-day internet usage.  After all, anyone who walks down a British high street is being recorded on CCTV from all angles for myriad reasons - security, safety, enforcement - and those images are often used by the law enforcement agencies, including the three mentioned above, to identify where specific people have been and when.  We don't throw our hands up and stamp our feet, apart from when the camera catches us speeding.

If it was accepted that effectively MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, plus the NSA, FBI and CIA (and if this post doesn't get intercepted after writing down that lot, then nothing on the internet tonight will) effectively follow us on Twitter and are clandestine Friends on Facebook then there wouldn't be any need for the likes of Snowden to sneak information out of the office and pass it to the press.  Sure, we wouldn't know the details of how many of our blog posts, FB threads, Twitter feeds etc had been read (unless the intelligence community gets behind liking them), but really, does it matter?


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