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Monday, June 10, 2013 

Through the prism.

Whenever the security services are criticised, we always get the same boilerplate response.  They do amazing work keeping us safe; they have to get it right every time while our enemies only have to be lucky once; we can't possibly be told of everything they're doing to protect us so they often prevent attacks we never even hear about it; and so on.  To which the obvious answer is: well, no shit.  The point surely is that with great power comes great responsibility.  As with the police or any other state service, they have to be held to account, even if everything can't be disclosed for very good reasons.

For all the claims from politicians that our intelligence agencies are some of the most open in the world, they simply don't have regulators worthy of the name.  The Intelligence and Security Committee has yet to prove it is up to the task, even with its boosted powers, such were the lies it was told about our involvement in rendition, and indeed the whitewash which the committee itself applied.  Nor are the commissioners any better, while the previous reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, was practically a creature of the security servicesHis replacement David Anderson does at least seem slightly more worthy of the description independent.  It also doesn't inspire confidence that the latest chairman of the ISC, Malcolm Rifkind, also chairs LEK, which provides consultancy to arms manufacturers.

When William Hague then says the law abiding have nothing to fear from GCHQ potentially having access to almost every piece of information an individual has shared with the majority of the internet giants via the US National Security Agency's Prism programme, you ought to know that the opposite is the case.  The old trope about those who have nothing to hide having nothing to be concerned about is so hoary that it shouldn't really need to be answered, but it ought to be even more ridiculous in a sad age of "revenge porn" and when so many share their most intimate secrets online.  Almost every single person has something in their past that they wouldn't want to become common knowledge, or which they would only ever share with their closest friends and family.  I most certainly have.

Whether or not it is the case that GHCQ have been using Prism as a way of getting around our more stringent laws on data interception isn't clear.  Certainly, that there were 197 such requests last year makes apparent that it's useful for something, although whether or not they gained access to information they otherwise hadn't been able to get hold of with the authorisation of a secretary of state or court order we can't know.  The inference from Hague in the Commons today was that these requests are also authorised either by him or another minister, hence why he and Cameron have both said that everything GCHQ does takes place under a legal framework.

He did at least recognise there might well need to be a change in the law, taking the point from David Blunkett of all people that while ministerial approval might still be required, it is not legally required.  This rather misses the point that we shouldn't be using what another intelligence service is accessing without oversight when it goes beyond what our own laws currently stipulate is permissible.  The proposed communications bill, which the joint committee said went too far, only proposes that the information that a message or action has been sent (metadata) be kept by ISPs, not the actual content itself.  Prism, by contrast, sucks in everything, and it seems with a certain amount of connivance from the likes of Facebook and Google, despite their claims to the contrary.

You don't have to be Alex Jones to be worried that while this data collection might currently be used to (in the main) protect us, it wouldn't take much for it to be used for mass surveillance, and indeed probably already is in any number of authoritarian states.  It should also concern us that contrary to the assurances from politicians, the tide is in fact towards ensuring the security services are further beyond proper scrutiny.  The justice and security bill that ensures there won't be a repeat of the "seven paragraphs" case has become law, the Gibson inquiry's report (what there is of it) is still yet to be published, while the Chilcot inquiry also seems to be stuck in limbo.  The communications data bill will eventually get passed in some form or another, precisely because the securocrats have too much influence and power for it not to be.  Just as we have an independent commission to monitor the police, so we should have a genuinely independent one for the intelligence agencies.  What we'll continue to have instead is the stonewalling and obfuscation that Hague in the main delivered to parliament today, along with the usual toadying from the majority on all sides.

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