A little over a week ago, GCHQ gave us a show. A giant poppy, part of the 2014 Armistice Day appeal. It was spectacular – and, for me at least, more than a little creepy.
The poppy display seems to have been part of something bigger: the term that immediately sprang to mind was ‘charm offensive’. GCHQ has, over the last year or so, been trying to charm us into seeing them as purely positive, despite the revelations of Edward Snowden. They’re trying to appear less secretive, more something to be admired and supported than something to be concerned about and made accountable. The poppy was an open symbol of that. Look at us, GCHQ seemed to be saying, we’re patriotic, positive, part of what makes this country great. Support us, don’t be worried about it. Love us.
I assume that the speech by Robert Hannigan, the new Director of GCHQ, was intended to be part of that charm offensive. For me, however, it had precisely the opposite effect. The full speech was published in the FT here – but I wanted to pick out a few points.
Privacy an absolute right?
The first, which made the headlines in the Guardian and elsewhere, is Hannigan’s statement that ‘privacy is not an absolute right’. He’s right – but we all know that, even the staunchest of privacy advocates. Privacy is a right held in balance with other rights and needs – with freedom of expression, for example, when looking at press intrusions, with the duty of governments to provide security and so forth. That’s explicitly recognised in all the relevant human rights documents – in Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, for example, it says of the right to a private life that:
“There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”
So we already know that privacy is not an absolute right – so why is Hannigan making the point? It’s hard to see this as anything but disingenuous – almost as though he wants to imply that foolish privacy advocates want to help terrorists by demanding absolute privacy. We don’t. Absolutely we don’t. What we want is to have an appropriate balance, for the interference in our privacy to be lawful, proportionate and accountable. At the moment, it’s not at all clear that any of that is true – there are legal challenges to the surveillance, deep doubts as to its proportionality and little evidence that those undertaking the surveillance are properly accountable. On the accountability front, it’s interesting that he should make such a speech at a time when the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, are undertaking a consultation – it made me wonder whether he’s trying to steer the committee in a particular direction.
Facebook – a tool for terrorists?
The other headline from the speech is the way Hannigan seems to be attacking Facebook and others for being too helpful to terrorists – which is an interesting reverse from the more commonly held view that they’re too helpful to the authorities. The argument seems to go that the ‘old’ forms of terrorists, exemplified by Al Qaeda, use the ‘dark web’, while the ‘new’ forms of terrorists, exemplified by IS, are using the social media – Facebook, Twitter and so forth. It’s an interesting point – and I’m sure there’s something in it. There’s no doubt that ‘bad guys’ do use what’s loosely called the dark web – and the social media activities of ‘bad guys’ all around the world are out there for all to see. Indeed, that’s the point – their visibility is the point. However, on the face of it, neither of those ‘facts’ support the need for the authorities to have better, more direct access to Facebook and so forth. Neither, on the face of it, is any justification for the kinds of mass data gathering and surveillance that seem to be going on – and that GCHQ and others seem to be asking us to approve.
By its very nature, the ‘dark web’ is not susceptible to mass surveillance and data gathering – so requires a more intelligent, targeted approach, something which privacy advocates would and do have no objection to. Social media – and Facebook in particular – don’t need mass surveillance either. To a great extent Facebook is mass surveillance. All that information is out there – that’s the point. It’s available for analysis, for aggregation, for pretty much whatever the authorities want it. And if Hannigan imagines that the secret activities of IS and others are undertaken on Facebook he’s more naive than I could imagine anyone in the intelligence services could be – they can’t have chosen to use Facebook and Twitter instead of using the dark web, but in addition to it. The secret stuff is still secret. The stuff on Facebook and Twitter is out there for all to see.
What’s more, there are already legal ways to access those bits of Facebook and Twitter than are not public – which is why the authorities already request that data on a massive scale.
Charming – or disarming?
Hannigan must know all of this - so why is he saying it? Does he think that the charm offensive has already worked, and that the giant GCHQ poppy has convinced us all that they’re wonderful, patriotic and entirely trustworthy? They may well be – I’m no conspiracy theorist, and suspect that they’re acting in good faith. That, however, is not the point. Trust isn’t enough here. We need accountability, we need transparency, we need honesty. Checks and balances. Not just charm.