Big Brother is watching you. Flickr/Silvision. Some rights reserved.
One of the UK’s biggest security assets is one of its biggest security threats. The UK’s spies have access to and are allowed to exercise some of the most sophisticated electronic surveillance techniques in the world. It has underwritten its Special Relationship with the US, cementing a bond at the most sensitive level of the State.
But it’s come at a cost. A government-appointed independent review called the UK’s legal framework under which its capabilities have been developed “undemocratic, unnecessary and — in the long run — intolerable”.
The spooks and Home Office have been dragged into modest reforms kicking and screaming. The few safeguards which do exist are only in place because of external pressure. The oversight system relies on a staggering amount of unfounded trust in the resilience of liberal democracy and the post-war western security order. It is trust that is now outright dangerous.
It is understandable that the UK doesn’t want to risk the Special Relationship. The United States is unarguably the world’s only superpower, spending more than double what China does on its military. The post-war order is based on US power and its projection around the world. The security establishment in the west and its allies have invested it with vast power. In doing so, they have accepted that the it has built the world’s largest ever surveillance infrastructure, supported by its dominance in technology and international security relationships.
The UK spooks want to play with their Atlantic cousins. They don’t like being told to do boring things like report back, or have a foreseeable, necessary, and proportionate legal framework in place. Tellingly, the area where resistance to transparency has been strongest in the UK is the extent to which the US has access to its intelligence. This isn’t about spooks trading brown envelopes on park benches: intelligence sharing in the age of the internet involves sharing, by default, any and all electronic communications that the UK collects. Today, UK intelligence gathering includes tapping submarine cables through which the vast majority of internet traffic flows, allowing the surveillance of the communications of millions of people on a daily basis.
We only know of the existence of these intelligence sharing agreements because of an obscure agreement – the UK-USA Agreement - signed in the aftermath of the Second World War, when civilian communications were confined to the few households that could afford a telephone. The agreement – which governs intelligence sharing between the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – not only provides for the sharing of raw intelligence, but also calls for these governments’ agencies to share surveillance equipment and techniques. Today, these arrangements have manifested themselves in the form of jointly staffed and jointly run bases, jointly run operations, and direct access to bulk surveillance. They have also been interpreted to allow US agencies to collect intelligence to target drone strikes, from a base in North Yorkshire.
Despite the level of cooperation however, the only official safeguard the government has been prepared to offer has been a two-page summary of secret internal guidance presented to a secret court.
This is intolerable. Globally, the pillars of democracy are under threat. It is worth remembering that it has no inherent right to exist. The effects of inequality are finding an outlet in populist nationalism, bringing with it politicians who were considered irrelevant and sneered at only a few years ago. In the UK, the independence of the judiciary has been openly challenged. If facts are becoming less relevant, then so too is parliamentary representation and the media.
The fact that the largest surveillance infrastructure ever exercised will soon be run by commander-in-chief Donald Trump, a man with no apparent qualms about using it to target entire religious groups, should therefore be of concern to everyone. For the UK, the security establishment’s trust in the system now means that Trump and whoever he appoints will also have access to the UK’s intelligence gathering infrastructure, including potentially data on British people. Moreover, they will have access at a time when the post-war western security order is under threat by a US leader who is in apparent awe of an authoritarian former KGB spy who has threatened and destabilised the UK’s allies and strategic interests.
Whatever happens over the next few years, if there is to be a storm, then it is best to prepare. It is essential that western liberal democratic societies are resilient enough to uphold their fundamental values. Some argue that technology is polarising groups and creating echo chambers: certainly, Brexit and the US election show that sides are less understanding of one another, and for a democracy, that represents real danger.
It is now in everyone’s interests to invest in robust institutions, governance systems, and clear laws that restrain and protect fundamental rights. Whether you believe it is the elites or populists that have hijacked democracy, a liberal system of checks and balances is the only way we know of how to manage power, and it is our only hope.
This must start with the state’s monopoly on violence and its power to spy on us and to control. For the UK government, this begins with telling Parliament and its electorate what Donald Trump will have on them. We can no longer rely on blind trust in the system, on secret courts reviewing secret safeguards.
Whether you believe that the UK’s surveillance infrastructure is the product of a national debate, supported by independent review, that strikes a balance between national security and transparency, or a dangerous and counter-productive global precedent that has no place in a modern liberal democracy, it’s in everyone’s interest to make it as democratic and resilient as possible – and certainly a lot more than it is at the moment. Why take the risk?