NCFP Opinion | 1984 Has Arrived Thirty Years Late

NCFP Opinion – 1984 Has Arrived Thirty Years Late

The new head of MI5 recently gave dire public warnings in response to Edward Snowden’s disclosures. Were the warnings justified? Did the disclosures really do so much damage? I do not think so. Let’s look at what has and is being said about mass surveillance of the British population by GCHQ and the NSA.

On BBC Question Time last week, the statement was made that government surveillance of any and all e-mails, telephone conversations, and other private communications is necessary in order to “protect the public” against “terrorists, paedophiles, and other criminals”. Not so long ago, we were told that it was necessary to protect us against “terrorism”. Nothing more, just terrorism. So already, it seems, the purpose of state monitoring of the population has dramatically expanded in scope. Just what are “other criminals”? Organisers of a protest against something the government wants to do? Journalists having a legitimate conversation about spurious acts by MPs that the government doesn’t want us to know about? Blanket surveillance such as that exposed by Edward Snowden is exactly the sort of tool that the totalitarian regimes of the past – and those that exist today – would have given their eye teeth to have, a perfect instrument to enable oppression of their populations.

Even if we only consider “terrorism”, what does that encompass? Dissent, inciting civil disorder, hacking government websites, kidnap, murder…? The definition is withheld from us, the public. In fact, it is whatever the government of the day wants it to be, and we, the electorate, have no say in what that definition might be.

One could ask similar questions about the stated aim of the role of blanket surveillance being used to identify paedophiles. There is now widespread paranoia in the UK about paedophiles, incited by both government and the press, out of all proportion to the risk. But what would surveillance identify? Journalists or private individuals legitimately discussing paedophilia? Would it seek to identify potential intent, or actual activity?

Edward Snowden should be lauded by the population at large for his disclosures. To say that it was a leak of far greater seriousness than the Russian spies who penetrated MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s is arrant nonsense; nor does it aid terrorists to confirm that the state has such capability. Terrorists are resourceful people, who must be aware that it has long been surmised that our, and the US, governments have such capability; any terrorist worth the name would be very careful to avoid any potentially interceptable method of communication even without Snowden’s revelations. It is my belief that the real cause of the dire pronouncements of Andrew Parker are motivated solely by pique. Allow me to give an example that typifies government secrecy in the UK.

I and a colleague some years ago, though we had not signed the Official Secrets Act, were informed that we must keep secret an issue or we could be prosecuted and imprisoned under its terms. The issue related to an item of military hardware that was known to cause actual harm to its users. Why must we keep it quiet? The MoD was afraid that if the information got out, it could be sued for compensation by those to whom the harm was done. In other words, a denial of accountability and of its obligations to its employees. And that, I submit, is behind much of the reason for UK government secrecy, and the pique about Snowden’s revelations.

In the UK, we have a government that is obsessed with secrecy, and now increasingly with crushing dissent; witness the Lobbying, Protest, and Trade Union Administration Bill – the “Gagging” Bill. Does it address the issue of corporate and rich individuals lobbying ministers? Emphatically no! Does it seek to gag charities, protest groups, pressure groups? Emphatically yes – and more so, since its last amendment by Andrew Lansley, which was supposed to prevent unnecessary gagging of protest groups and charities. Does it seek to hamper the Trade Unions and the Labour Party? Emphatically yes.

If you add the response to the Snowden revelations, the “Gagging” Bill, and the Press Regulation Bill, we are fast acquiring the tools for totalitarian administration to be enabled and to thrive. Britain being synonymous with democracy? Don’t make me laugh!

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