So the revelations from Edward Snowden keep on coming, exposing ever-more profound attacks on privacy and democracy in the UK and elsewhere. News that GCHQ is essentially downloading, storing and searching through the entire flow of Internet traffic that comes into and goes out of the UK without any specific warrant to do so is one side of that. That seems to be taking place through an extremely generous interpretation of the out-of-date RIPA law that is supposed to bring some level of accountability to just this sort of thing. The fact that it doesn't shows that we must reform RIPA and make it fit for the Internet age.
That should be a priority for the future, but here I want to concentrate on a more pressing threat: the Snooper's Charter. Despite the fact that it is disproportionate, will create additional risks of private data being misused, and simply won't work, the usual authoritarians on both the Right and Left of politics are still calling for it to be brought in. But prompted by the leaks about GCHQ's activities, "sources" have been revealing to The Guardian some interesting facts beyond Snowden's information that have a direct bearing on the Snooper's Charter:
Last year, the government was mired in difficulty when it tried to pass a communications bill that became known as the "snoopers' charter", and would have allowed the bulk interception and storage of UK voice calls and internet traffic. The source says this debate was treated with some scepticism inside the intelligence community - "We're sitting there, watching them debate the snoopers' charter, thinking: ‘Well, GCHQ have been doing this for years'."
In other words, the UK government has been playing us for mugs – pretending that it desperately needs all that private information because "terrorism", when in fact it already has access to it all, but under a shadowy programme that clearly stretches legality to breaking point. What those in power want in fact is not a capability that they already have, simply a legal framework for it.
But there's another interesting statement in The Guardian story quoted above:
The UK source challenges the official justification for the programme; that it is necessary for the fight against terrorism and serious crime: "This is not scoring very high against those targets, because they are wise to the monitoring of their communications. If the terrorists are wise to it, why are we increasing the capability?
This is crucially important: the source, presumably within GCHQ or at least with deep knowledge of what is going on there, admits that even with this totality of knowledge, the law enforcement agencies are "not scoring very high" against the traditional targets – terrorism and serious crime. That's because as I and many others have pointed out, the bad people know how to get around this stuff, which means that it only affects the law-abiding. And if the Snooper's Charter is finally pushed through, and the current activities are put on a legal footing, that situation will not change one jot: in other words, the justification for snooping on all of us, all of the time, will be as weak and insubtantial then as now.
Having all this information will not allow the police to combat terrorism or serious crime any better. Indeed, I suspect it will hinder them, because increasing the size of the haystack does not help find the needles. Far better for the outrageous sums that will be necessary to fund the implementation of the Snooper's Charter to be spent where they are needed: on bolstering conventional policing and intelligence work, not on chasing this insane dream of "total surveillance".
Moreover, as well as grossly exaggerating the supposed benefits of snooping on us all, the government of course minimises the very real risks. Again, it is worth reading the comment from someone who has knowledge of what is being done at GCHQ, published by The Guardian:
Beyond the detail of the operation of the programme, there is a larger, long-term anxiety, clearly expressed by the UK source: "If there was the wrong political change, it could be very dangerous. All you need is to have the wrong government in place. It is capable of abuse because there is no independent scrutiny."
This is why the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" brigade are so naÃ¯ve. With the wrong government in place, the immense power that total surveillance brings could and would be abused to ensure that it stayed in power, and even those with "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" would pay the price in terms of lost liberty. The fact that GCHQ has been able to set up a system that spies on all incoming and outgoing communications carried by fibre optics, without any real oversight, means that things are already out of control. Thanks to Snowden and The Guardian, at least we know this fact; if we don't now stop the Snooper's Charter once and for all and also bring in a system of real oversight and control for the GCHQ's activities, we have only ourselves to blame for what might one day happen.