Update 42 – July 2013
The secret state revealed?
We live in an age of revelations about the surveillance practices of powerful institutions: phone hacking by newspapers; undercover infiltration of radical groups by the police; monitoring of internet and phone traffic on a huge scale by national security agencies in both the USA and the UK. Chapter 21 of Politics and Governance in the UK surveys some of the issues raised by state surveillance. But that chapter was written before the spate of revelations of recent years, of which perhaps the most extraordinary have been those flowing from the data released by the US ‘whistle blower’ Edward Snowden, reported widely in the UK national press. (See for instance http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/23/edward-snowden-nsa-files-timeline.) As the revelations still tumble out it is hard yet to get a grasp of their wider significance, but two obvious contrasting explanations can be identified. The first might be summarised as ‘nothing new here’. States have long spied on their citizens, and have used covert police and security forces to infiltrate groups deemed to be subversive in some way. The tumbling out of the revelations might then be viewed optimistically, as a sign of the resilience of liberal democracy and the capacity of the institutions of civil society to probe and publicise the actions of the state. It might be argued in addition that some of the more shocking allegations – for instance that the Metropolitan Police in effect spied on the family of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence in the hope of ‘smearing’ them - reflect a culture that is no longer in place. (For the Stephen Lawrence case see p. 431 of Politics and Governance in the UK.) The second contrasting explanation emphasises the novelty of what is going on. In particular, it points to the scale of surveillance which the new age of digital communication enables the state to engage in. Moreover the Snowden revelations suggest a level of coordination between different national security authorities which is unprecedented. They also suggest that national authorities are finding ways to circumvent legal restraints on their activities by in effect ‘sub-contracting’ surveillance tasks to foreign agencies which are outwith domestic law. This appears to be a key in particular to US and UK collaboration.
One so far unanswered question in all these revelations is whether state agencies are able to do anything sensible with the huge volumes of data which they are harvesting. It is now exactly forty years since the publication of James Rule’s classic study Private Lives and Public Surveillance: social control in the computer age. Rule pointed out that in surveillance there was a trade-off: one could gather small amounts of qualitatively rich data and analyse it closely; or could use the new tools of the computer age to gather vast quantities of data which were then very hard to analyse. Security agencies have plainly boosted their budgets by persuading governments to engage in huge new surveillance exercises (the intelligence services were one of the few parts of the state to receive a rise in planned funding in the latest spending review – see update 43 below.) Whether the data thus gathered is of any practical use remains an open question.