It is no secret that I worked (as a Russian and German linguist) at GCHQ in Cheltenham before heading down the ordination road in 1984 – just after Margaret Thatcher inexplicably banned us from belonging to unions and removed all our rights under the employment laws. Not that I am still sore…
In the last week or so I have only had time to follow superficially the business in the media about the PRISM project of NSA in the USA that has been exposed. It is all very Orwellian (in a 1984 sense), isn't it? Despite shock at the scale and nature of this surveillance, what really surprises me is that anybody should be surprised at what has been revealed.
The conundrum is a familiar one. We want to be protected and free. We want privacy and as little State interference in our lives as possible. We do not want to be watched or supervised every moment of the day. Yet, when anything goes wrong, we react with blaming fury at the lack of protection we have been afforded by those committed to this charge.
In a digital age it must be well-nigh impossible to work out what is, what isn't and what might one day prove to be vital or useful 'intelligence'. So, everything gets trawled up. It is yet another outworking of the maxim we so uncritically accept in other areas of life: that if we can do something – technologically – then we should do it.
The problem for the intelligence agencies is that their 'enemy' doesn't wear a big badge or simply speak with a funny 'Igor' accent. The benefits of technological advancement mean that the technology of espionage and terrorism advance. We can't have unlimited freedom and at the same time expect total security from threats by nasty people who don't think our freedom is up to much anyway.
Yet, we clearly need an informed, rational and responsible public debate about just how much freedom we are prepared to give up in order to increase security. We must collectively agree where ethics and effectiveness meet in a very complex world where some people just will not play by the rules of cricket.
And my view? I am wary about judging what I don't know: for example, and by definition, we have no idea how many crimes have been prevented because of hidden intelligence work. We would probably be horrified if we knew what was really going on out there where the unpleasant people seek ever more cunning ways to destroy people they don't like. I think PRISM looks like indiscriminate overkill and an intelligence network that has got out of hand – rightly provoking questions about power and its potential abuse. But, if I want to draw in the reach of surveillance by the State, I must also be prepared to pay the price if the nasties get through the gaps.
And, of course, we get worked up about this at the same time as we live in a place where we get photographed by the authorities a million times a day: England.
[It's not a very] funny old world.