Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Prism: Spy agencies caught spying shock horror

The Prism spying scandal generating headlines this week on both sides of the Atlantic is not half as shocking as mock outrage in the press would make out. Some righteous indignation is due, as is a detailed attempt to learn lessons to stop any excessive invasions of privacy, where national security is found not to be at risk. But muting the media frenzy for a moment, are we really so surprised that government intelligence gathering agencies are recording and sifting our personal, private information stored on the web? 

The Prism US National Security Agency (NSA) "scandal", leaked by former CIA employee Edward Snowden, has now spread to the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), by virtue of the uniquely close UK-US information sharing relationship which has existed since the Second World War. Cue outrage of spies circuitously evading online data laws.

The UK's GCHQ. Source: http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/
I'm not overly surprised or worried by it. Intelligence sharing is one genuinely valuable facet of the much-talked-about (in the UK) "special relationship" with the US. It is hardly surprising, and I think it's highly encouraging, that the Americans share the minutiae of their online data snooping with the British secret services (GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and Defence Intelligence).

As for the spy agencies playing fast and loose with laws for protecting personal privacy and online data, it's easy to feign outrage, but we have always known that spies do this. They are spies.

Indeed, we are supposed to sleep more soundly in our beds knowing that they do this. Rest assured that the competition Chinese or Russian spooks will stoop to any means to steal data of value for their own murky ends. By comparison, our spies are supposed to protect us from terrorist enemies within and state-level foes abroad: largely meaningless boundaries in cyberspace as well as the physical world.

Nobody has yet suggested that data stolen or otherwise obtained by spies has been abused for some perverted intent. Provided that innocuous information is not stored once deemed insignificant from a security point of view, and doesn't find its way into malevolent hands, I don't mind. Naturally, human nature being what it is, such abuses might occur. Even secretive spy organisations need disciplined governance policies and procedures, with strict structures in place to make sure that even when the laws most of us live by are skirted or broken, it is done within the framework of intelligence organisation's 'house rules', with informed judgement and senior oversight, in the service of genuine national security interest. Foreign secretary William Hague has noted as much by saying that Britain's spooks operate within a "strict legal and ethical framework".

Taking the howls of the press to their logical conclusions would hound the intelligence agencies into powerless, ineffectual shadows of the spooks' former selves. The idea that spies are accountable like ordinary civil servants and administrators is ludicrous. What would they have government do: set up a publicly accountable supervisor to "check the checker" in the case of spy agencies, highly sensitive information and national secrets? No such body could ever work, as it would need to be staffed exclusively by personnel from within the intelligence community in order to have the necessary security clearances, expertise and maturity in judgement. Any politician would be wise to steer clear.

Indeed, "plausible deniability" and other stock euphemisms have always been among the spymasters' best cards, and most beloved by the politicians who would seek to distance government from the dirty work of its organs. Small wonder that government is downplaying the Prism affair: it's unearthing only confirms what should have been implicitly understood and accepted all along.

Many believe that more transparency is desirable and spy agencies should be outed and shamed. Some of this is idle stirring by those partial to thumbing government and to any good conspiracy story. This is particularly true in the case of whistle-blowing organisations like Wikileaks, its fans, and online "hacktivists" pushing a myriad of rogue agendas, acting with little respect for law, and seemingly without any regard for threats to national security.

There can be little doubt that Edward Snowden is a brave and principled man, much like Bradley Manning before him. Agree or disagree with their choices, both took heroically brave decisions.

However, I regard Julian Assange (pictured), Wikileaks and its whistle-blowing ilk as a menace, operating beyond rules of journalism or any established boundaries of national interest, more driven by ego, ambition and rebellion, and evangelising a dangerous, anarchist, seductive, extremist ideology of transparency.

Sometimes openness can bring about good. I am a journalist by trade: I have to believe that. But it is not self-evident that openness is in itself a force for good; its specific applications need questioning. Unlimited transparency is naive and dangerous; I would suggest that allowed unchecked it is no less an evil than extreme secrecy and subterfuge.

In 2010, when Wikileaks began leaking 250,000 US diplomatic cables, like many readers I was curious to know what diplomatic duplicities had been unearthed and what international relations riddles had been solved by the embassy documents. That was followed by a far more uneasy pang of guilt, accompanied by fear that while unfettered transparency makes great reading, the sheer scale of Cablegate and its sensitive content meant that untold secrets had fallen into the hands of those who seek to watch the world burn. Lives were put at risk; tensions were fanned; smug malcontents cooed at US discomfiture. Given the choice, I'd prefer to trust the good judgement of the intelligence agencies: at least I know who they are supposed to serve.

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