NSA & GCHQ - hand in glove. Are you really surprised?

The level of surveillance across the US and the UK should not come as a shock to their citizens. To what extent is the nature of these actions rooted in history? Would even the most benevolent of governments be able to stop the constant monitoring of its citizens?

Flickr/Jonathan McIntosh. Some rights reserved.

Edward Snowden’s latest revelation that the US National Security Agency funds the UK’s Security Service is, of course, a shock and a surprise in the same way that the Pope being of a certain religious persuasion and ursine mammals depositing spoor in wooded areas is a disturbing new development that merits a serious re-evaluation of all that we have thought to be true and fair.

The special relationship between the US and the UK has since the Second World War been the same as that of a vassal state or town to the Roman Empire. Roman emperors knew certain regions subject to the Pax Romana had skills and products they needed but simply could not supply at the heart of the Empire. They therefore entered into arrangements whereby they supported chieftains and tribal elders who would ensure the free flow of the required commodity, be it glass, oil or slaves with particular skills. They were, of course, the dominant power in these relationships, but the Roman Peace consisted of a combination of military might, cultural and financial patronage and really, really straight roads. The Pax Americana consists of blue jeans, hamburgers, movies, HBO and SIGINT.

The UK is rather like the ancient Roman town of Baelo Claudia in Southern Spain, which produced the finest garum (fermented fish sauce) in the known world. It layered rotting fish in deep wells and allowed them to ferment and liquefy in the sun before exporting the pungent condiment to all corners of the Empire. In return, the town received the status of Municipium from the Emperor Claudius; a form of self-governance within the Empire. In other words, it made the little villagers feel as if they were independent and sovereign whilst clearly being financed, protected and propped up by the City of Rome.

The UK has been for a long time the principal exponent of surveillance and SIGINT technology and methodology. Their special brand of sauce has been a tasty ‘must have’ for the US since Bletchley Park first provided the basis for modern encryption, decryption and computing. Similar to downtown Baelo Claudia, it stinks to high heaven, but no one is really surprised.

Knowing something is inevitably true, believing it to be so and then discovering a material fact that confirms your belief is received by the brain and processed into a stage reaction worthy of the double-take in a creaky murder mystery performed by a member of an amateur dramatic society in a shabby church hall: we are unconvinced by our own incredulity. We know this stuff goes on and we gasp with wide-eyed indignation, protest, campaign and then move on, tacitly accepting it because we don’t believe it can be stopped.

Let us suppose a future new generation of politicians, energised by the protests of the early twenty-first century grows up to wage a radical political campaign against the surveillance state. In a new era of political thought resembling the Kennedy administration’s engagement with civil rights in the US and the Attlee government’s radical construction of the welfare state in the UK, they successfully legislate against the worst excesses of data capture and analysis of all citizens in the Empire and its vassal states. They throw open the doors of their intelligence agencies and emphasise the danger of burning liberty in the quest for security. What then? Will the technology go away? Will every country in the world regard itself as subject to the same respect for individual privacy at the price of increased security? Of course not: the spooks will consider it their duty, as now, to ignore the concerns of libertarian politicians paying lip service to liberty and will continue to ensure that they have absolute access to you and everything you do, say or think.

Orwell said “The same pattern always reasserts itself, just as a gyroscope will always return to equilibrium, however far it is pushed one way or the other.” Whilst this is true, there have been marked changes in our lives as a result of discounting this counsel of despair and fighting back. But who will be the Rosa Parks of the Data Wars? Snowden?

The one fatal flaw in the encroachment on civil liberties is that it relies on young minds in back rooms devising ever more intelligent means of surveillance and data analysis. The hackers find themselves recruited as security analysts rather than kicking their heels at home with an electronic tag on their leg and a banning order preventing them from even touching a keyboard; the technology becoming both the werewolf and the silver bullet.

There is an arms race going on and in the Data Wars, the corporations and intelligence agencies are the dominant armies on the plain. But there are undoubtedly rearguard actions and resistance maquisards, some not yet born, who may find a way for a citizen to be, as far as possible, guarded against unwarranted state and commercial intrusion. Many already exist, albeit with holes. But it is possible that the drills of the data miners will be blunted by a clever bit of code combined with legislation and controls that will limit the price exacted for the Pax Americana. It will not be foolproof, but political equilibrium in the course of its progress from one end of liberty to another may, for a while at least, tilt in the direction of the truly private citizen.

 

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About the author

Dom Shaw is a writer and filmmaker. He won the 1982 Grierson Award for Best Documentary for co-directing the seminal post-punk documentary “Rough Cut & Ready Dubbed” and has written for the BBC and ITV. His first novel, “Eric is Awake” is on sale now. Follow him on @papadom2

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