Many years ago in happier, more innocent times I visited a government eavesdropping facility. We were shown Matrix-like gobbledygook streaming on a PC screen. The operator played with the keyboard, running different programmes. Nothing happened. Other options were tried. Nothing. Suddenly the blur of numbers and symbols simplified. Groups of letters appeared here and there. Further keyboard tapping. Some full words emerged. Bingo! There it all was. A diplomatic cable from a foreign capital to a distant embassy in its original language had been spotted flying through the ether and briskly decoded for our edification. All in a day’s work.
Governments have always kept a beady ear on what other states are up to. Why not? If governments have one core job it is to protect their territory and people against foreign mischief. It makes sense to find out the intentions of other governments, foes and friends alike. In an EU Budget negotiation worth hundreds of billions or a vital UN Security Council resolution on the Middle East, which government does not want to know the negotiating position of the others? They’ll suspect they are being bugged – why disappoint them? But be careful. They may deliberately say things that aren’t true, just to mislead us…
Eavesdropping can help in fast-moving situations. Outside powers do not want to pile into the Syria imbroglio. Much better to listen from afar and use information sucked up into cyberspace quietly to help the saner forces on the ground. Those hooting the loudest against US/UK intelligence-gathering were strangely mute when that same intelligence helped the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons get into Syria and win its Nobel Peace Prize.
Down the centuries the issues have stayed the same, but the methods have changed. When leaders communicated by letter with their envoys, specialist snooper teams had to open a sealed message, quickly copy the contents by hand, then send the original on its way under a new seal identical to the broken one. Hence more and more sophisticated cryptography: those odious foreigners are reading our letters, but (we hope) they can’t understand them!
In the twentieth century along came radio and telegraph communication and remote intercepts. Some thought that such snooping was crudely intrusive. As late as 1929 US Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down a key US military intelligence operation on the famous if improbable basis that ‘gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.’ Things moved on fast. First World War π and then the IT revolution transformed the way governments use electronic means to promote ‘national security.’
Take a typical counter-espionage problem: is a traitor in your ranks passing your secret information to a foreign diplomat? This used to mean following foreign diplomats day and night, bugging their phones and houses, laboriously working out who might be a spy and then seeing what they were up to. Some of that still goes on: there’s no school like the old school. But now it’s easier to narrow down the search. Upload photographs of all foreign diplomats and all local bureaucrats. Feed the data from hundreds of tiny security cameras round the capital city into a face-recognition software programme. Tell the programme to find patterns and weed out probable coincidences. See what’s left:
Hmmm. Eight times in the last six months Nikolai Nikolayevich from the Foreign Ministry has walked through Gorky Park three days before two diplomats from the same embassy followed the identical route. Let’s have a closer look…
It’s one thing closely watching potential enemies. What about bugging known friends? 2013 saw Germany reacting strongly to revelations that the US government had been spying on Angela Merkel’s telephone calls. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that some NSA electronic eavesdropping had ‘gone too far.’ He appeared to be suggesting that it was possible to draw a technical and procedural/professional line that is rather less ‘far’ but nonetheless ‘good enough.’ Is this credible?
Perhaps henceforth the Americans will deny themselves the ability to eavesdrop directly on the leaders of their Nato allies. But if, say, Mrs Merkel has an open-line telephone conversation with another rather more problematic leader whom the Americans are tracking, what happens? Does the NSA listen to only one part of the conversation but not the other? Do they deny themselves the option of listening to anyone in Mrs Merkel’s office, or senior officials in the German government? Anyone in Germany, German or not? Or any German citizen anywhere on Earth?
And what do these distinctions even mean when myriad data-impulses emitted by Germans are making their way through the vast global data-oceans on computers owned by governments and private businesses and citizens, that governments and businesses and citizens are all exploring legitimately for interesting patterns? Even if US surveillance policy rules out a priori analysis of electronic data created by German leaders, that data still needs ‘collecting’ so that it can be screened out.
What of Edward Snowden and his infamous revelations about US and UK government intelligence-gathering? We citizens expect the government to defend our institutions against malevolent foreigners bent on cyber-sabotage, and to try to track would-be terrorists, paedophiles and other dangerous criminals; the further ‘upstream’ they are intercepted (ie before they can do any direct harm), the better. This requires sophisticated computer power. What sort of safeguards might stop the government using its technologies improperly against us? Things like this:
• Powerful computers that search the world’s data-oceans looking for suspicious patterns, but have built-in safeguards so that individual high-level authorisations are needed when actual people are being tracked within our own country or overseas
• Alarm bells that go off if any
operators use data-searches improperly
• A tight legal and regulatory framework that emphasises human rights and limits state powers
• People running the systems working to the highest standards of professional ethics, doing what they can to protect citizens’ privacy
• Supervision by trusted outsiders, including elected parliamentarians and independent judges
• Regular audits and spot-checks to ensure that everything is being done properly.
In short, something resembling the current British intelligence-gathering system and conspicuously absent in many states round the world, not least those shouting the loudest against Western intelligence efforts.
Despite the shrieking against this system by Snowden fans, assorted useful idiots and facile pundits, no one has come up with anything seriously better. That’s because there probably isn’t anything seriously better that combines rigorous confidentiality, honourable ethics, tough external cross-checking, democratic supervision, and systemic technical robustness aimed against outside attack, inadvertent leaks or deliberate Snowden-type betrayal.
Faced with these dilemmas some voters might err on the side of greater public transparency, hence less operational effectiveness for their country’s intelligence agencies. Others might insist that in this impossibly complex area we owe it to ourselves to guard against extremist threats. Debates rumble on. After the usual deliberations and compromises a new law will be passed and supporting procedures put in place. Hurrah. A ‘line’ has been drawn somewhere. We’re safe.
Meanwhile the technology of networked measuring has surged ahead, far faster than lawmakers and policy wonks can understand. People round the world stampede to buy amazing new gadgets that let them do cool stuff, ignoring the fact that these devices work precisely because they allow vast data pooling and measurement. Data emitted by us as we do anything other than sit alone starving in a cave is collected and processed as part of things working normally. Yes, it’s becoming technically impossible to stay ‘anonymous’ or ‘private’. But thanks to all this new data the environment is cleaner. Cars are safer. Dirty, dangerous jobs are done by robots. Crime rates as hitherto understood are declining, as it becomes clear almost instantaneously who has committed a theft or assault.
I suspect we are seeing a creepy technical if not moral convergence between different sorts of government systems. Democracies and dictatorships alike rely on technology that allows the state to monitor citizens, but also allows citizens to monitor citizens, and citizens to monitor the state. Perhaps citizens of the future will be bemused that anyone was surprised by Snowden’s revelations: being watched all the time by everyone and everything is the source of our freedom and our security!
In the meantime, people like Snowden directly help authoritarian governments spy on the planet, and reduce the ability of democratic states to track terrorists and find out what else is being done against them. Good guys get bogged down in lawsuits and controversy. Bad guys prosper. Not a very heroic result.