Tony Benn’s five questions – and surveillance

TonyBennTony Benn’s death was announced today. He was one of my political heroes – and a man I admired in a whole lot of ways. I’m not going to write about him – there will be reams and reams written about him by writers far better than me – but just note that his wit and wisdom has application in many spheres.

One of the things he’s most famous for – and one of the things that will be mentioned again and again in the aftermath of his death – is his questioning of the legitimacy of power. His five questions reverberate far beyond the obvious. He asked of the powerful:

  1. What power have you got?
  2. Where did you get it from?
  3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How do we get rid of you?

In the current climate, this does not just apply to the people with power, but the institutions of power. Think of the application to surveillance.

What power do they have? The power that surveillance provides is immense – as I’ve noted before, it doesn’t just impact upon privacy but upon a broad range of our human rights, from freedom of speech, assembly and association onwards.

Where did they get this power from? To a great extent just by grabbing it – the way that the Snowden revelations have demonstrated that surveillance has been kept secret, that the NSA and GCHQ have built empires almost without our noticing, should give us all pause for thought.

In whose interests do they exercise it? That is far from clear – the evidence that it ‘protects us from terrorism’ is flimsy at best. It looks to many of us as though it is primarily in instrument of control, in the interests of those already with power – or, perhaps even more directly, just in the interests of those doing the surveillance themselves, building their own power base. Either way, it doesn’t seem to be in the interests of us!

To whom are you accountable? This is one of the key questions – to date, those exercising surveillance have seemed all but unaccountable. In the UK, the Intelligence and Security Committee that is supposed to exercise scrutiny is pretty much unfit for purpose, a supine body that does exactly what it’s told.

How do we get rid of you? That is the biggest question of all – and should be asked again and again until we get an answer. So far, the only apparent concessions given about surveillance have involved transparency. They’ll tell us a little more about what they’re doing… but they don’t seem to be willing to even consider that there should be less surveillance – and in particular, no mass surveillance.

That’s what we need. And we should keep on asking Tony Benn’s five questions, in as many spheres as we can.

4 thoughts on “Tony Benn’s five questions – and surveillance

  1. Human Rights…
    …Power and Control administered by individuals and organisations because…

    they can – and do!

    Our silence is an “Enabler” providing a green light for yet further invasive and illegal breaches.

    Together, we have a massive voice.
    Together, we can bring about Change.
    Act – and stop the erosion of our civil liberties.

    Use Your Voice, Speak Out, Lobby, Campaign – Make A Difference!

  2. Paul
    Thanks for the post. I will blog later on the five questions though not from the perspective of surveillance as that is a tertiary relation rather than directly related. Here is why.

    First, wd gave them the authority. Except that is not quite true, which was Benn understood and my blog discusses, to the extent the UK is not a republic and is there not fully a democratic state. However leaving aside that nuance the main issue remains.
    The main issue, which is inescapable is that we want and need that surveillance. We want and need that surveillance because we need government. Imagine a world without that surveillance, not any surveillance, but rather that surveillance. You will find the technological wolves preying and feasting upon the technological sheep like you and I.
    In the digital state of nature tyrants rule and the strong do as they will and the weak do as they must. Only between equals is there justice. Those who are wolves and tyrants at heart bleat about their freedom being constrained. Wikileaks does not want its “freedom” constrained so it can enjoy the sublimely vicious joys of being an unfettered tyrant. They can act with impunity and they like it.

    We need government to make us legally equal as we are equal before the rule of law. Except that there is no clear rule of law in the digital state of nature which is why we want our governments patrolling it because we want them on that wall, we need them on that wall for without that wall we are the prey.
    If you can show me the borders of the digital space and that net users can be identified by the sovereign as friend or foe and i can accept an argument for more extensive constraints. Until such time, the digital domain remains a state of nature best patrolled by the sovereign as law does not enclose it…yet.



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