This is the text of this morning's Thought for the day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

In a previous life I worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham. As everybody knows, this is an institution now under public scrutiny because of its power to hold enormous amounts of information about any and all of us, usually without us being remotely aware of it.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the word surveillance triggers memories of George Orwell's 1984 or the world of the KGB and Stasi. Surveillance can only be bad or sinister, can't it? But, here we hit on a fundamental problem at a time when serious concerns are being raised about the limits that should be imposed on surveillance agencies as to the nature and quantity of data they should be allowed – or required – to hold.

The basic conundrum here is that we live in a society that wants – nay, demands – total security from threat, injury or conflict at the same time as demanding total privacy from any sort of unwanted intrusion. But, this circle simply can't be squared. If we want security from threat – for example, from terrorists on our streets or snoopers in our computers – we must accept a certain loss of privacy. In a world of technological complexity – in which the sinister experts in the field do their plotting in the dark places most of us don't even know exist – there is no alternative but for those whose job it is to protect us to have access to data.

There are two problems here, it seems to me. First, it is inherent to the nature of intelligence that any data might potentially be useful, and, therefore, should be collected and stored. But, who discriminates between what is useful and what is not? And how? Secondly, in a society that wants protection, we also have obligations that then impinge on what we sometimes lazily think of as rights. That is in the nature of a society – that we accept curbs on rights in order to protect the common good.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve have grasped for power, they discover they are transparent and hide. Like them, we don't want to be seen through. Perhaps that's because many don't trust those who do the seeing – even if, as in Eden, this transparency is supposed to set us free from fear.

I am one of those who thinks that intrusion by the State or large corporations should be minimal, that surveillance services should be watched, scrutinised and held to account, and that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the individual. But, I can't then complain if something goes wrong on the social field because of my demand for privacy. There is always a cost either way.

This balance of individual rights with societal obligations is difficult to achieve. It seems to me, however, that fundamental to our judgement on the boundaries of privacy is the recognition that we can't have it both ways.

 

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Being away has made me feel a little detached from the sound and fury of home. But, as I used to work for them, I have followed the GCHQ/NSA business quite closely. It seems as if, suddenly and because of inept handling of the Guardian by 'the powers', people are waking up to the enormous ubiquity of surveillance in the UK.

So much has been written during the last few weeks (including this reflection from Der Spiegel in Germany) and I won't add to it here. But, what it all suggests is that – as I have written before now – (a) we need a public debate about the powers of 'the powers' who act in our name, (b) we need a public debate about what sort of security we want and expect, and (c) we need to ask if the answer to (a) and (b) has any consequence for the realism of our expectations.

We can't have our cake and eat it. If we want total security – which means giving security services some substantial leeway – there will be a cost in terms of privacy. If we want less surveillance, we must be forgiving when stuff gets missed by the security services.

Given that total security is an illusion anyway, I prefer to limit the powers of 'the powers' and then face the consequences. And I would resist complaint against the security services if/when stuff gets past them. We can't have it both ways.

If anything, however, all this Guardian/Snowden business demonstrates the importance of a free and professional press, capable of investigating and digging deep behind the propaganda. Which, of course, raises the further question about the viability of a responsible and professional press when the digital revolution is rendering the old business models obsolete and making it harder for good journalism to survive or thrive.

We have choices…

 

I caught a hint of a glimpse of a headline somewhere yesterday while on the move. It simply raised the question of how we, citizens of a democratic country, would have responded several decades ago to the suggestion that every individual would carry around on his or her person a tracking device. It sounds absurd, doesn't it? We would reject such a notion as being an infringement of personal privacy and a seriously worrying intrusion by the state (or other powers).

Well, like many things, we allow it to happen because rather than be presented to us as a policy, it simply creeps up incrementally as 'technological development'. So, now, without really thinking a great deal about it, we live in a surveillance state, whereby the 'powers' can know where I am, what I am buying, who I am texting/phoning, which websites I am perusing, where I am driving, who I am with, and so on. CCTV, road cameras, debit/credit cards, social media, mobile signal triangulation, store cards, etc. – the mere fact of this coverage makes any idea of privacy seem a little ironic (in an Orwellian, 1984 sense).

So, I was amused to read this morning's (always) excellent Newsbiscuit piece about GCHQ.

 

1. What do governments (and the rest of us, for that matter) think intelligence/espionage services really do with their time… and is there a clue in the title?

2. Was there a sadder face at Wimbledon than Laura Robson's today?

3. Is Edward Snowden so desperate that he thinks for one minute that Russia – the mighty, ruthlessly pragmatic and politically unsentimental Bear – might be a safe place to seek asylum from the USA?

4. Why were some of us dismissed when, during the Arab Spring, we urged a longer-term view (before declaring, as a US President once did, “Mission Accomplished!”) and suggested that pulling an existing system down is quicker and easier than establishing a viable alternative one?

5. What is the point of setting up an independent review body to determine MPs' pay, only to diss it on grounds of populist ideology?

 

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.

 

When you have grown up with a particular framework for understanding the world and theology, it is not a simple task to listen through different ears to a different vocabulary. But, this is, in fact, what Jesus asked his friends and enemies to do – just read the gospels and this is the story: who dared to listen and look at God, the world and us through a different lens, and who could only try to shut out the heresy?

The Bradford Diocesan Clergy Conference began today at Swanwick in Derbyshire. I guess it's one of those things – like preaching – where you just have to be there to 'get it'. We began with an utterly human session with David Runcorn on 'keeping faith in a time of change'. Then we had a first session with Diarmuid O'Murchu on the developing cosmological context of human spirituality. It is in this context that we explored the implications of human belonging to the interconnected web of relationship with people, creation and the cosmos.

What struck me while listening to this was the clash of vocabulary for articulating theologically why the world is the way it is and how we are to understand it and God. If we are locked into a closed system in which theology encourages orientation towards 'other world' salvation, the talk of an open system of engagement with the created order 'now' seems odd. Or just wrong. If we have grown used to thinking in terms of particular doctrines, then all this cosmological stuff just sounds like New Age nonsense.

But the reason for having this on our programme is simply to challenge (or encourage?) us as clergy to think outside our conventional linguistic and theologically conceptual frameworks about the usual stuff: human meaning, life on the planet, spirituality that is engaged with reality and not just an escape from it, the moral claims of responsible living as beings in community in an interdependent cosmos.

It is far better to listen to stuff that challenges our preconceptions than simply to hear what confirms our assumed frameworks and makes us feel comfortable. After all, part of the role of clergy is to stir other people up into hearing the Gospel differently, listening through different ears, looking though different eyes, and catching glimpses of God's glory that would remain hidden if we only ever look through familiar lenses.

We are at the beginning. There is more to come. But, someone has to do the hard work of trying to find a vocabulary for relating the varying disciplines of science, social observation, anthropology, philosophy and theology to each other in a way that encourages intelligibility. We have to work at this; it is not easy. But, it is interesting to consider how much is to do with difference in 'content' (understanding of God and the world) as opposed to difference in 'language' for trying to express what is essentially always incomplete and mysterious.

As I discovered while working for the British Government thirty years ago (as a linguist at GCHQ), theology has to address and cope with the massive complexity of the real world – and that needs to be expanded to include the totality of the real cosmos.

I am not sure Fleetwood Mac were thinking of MI6 when they wrote Tell Me Lies way back in 1987. But the words came to mind while I was listening to the head of MI6 (Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service), Sir John Sawers today.

In the first ever public speech by an MI6 chief, he tried to explain something of the dilemmas faced by the intelligence services in fulfilling their commission on behalf of the people they defend. The main problem he faces in doing such a speech is to convince people that an organisation shrouded in secrecy and subterfuge can be trusted. Basically, how do we know when we are being lied to by those we pay to protect us and keep us ‘free’?

Blow the secrecy and you make most intelligence work – which is immensely complex and not usually for the fainthearted or the gullible – redundant. The very nature of the work means that games are played all the time – games in which reality, truth and honesty stand on a perilously thin line.

For example, should we be told about a threat to public order if the very telling (a) informs the protagonists that their ways and intentions are known – thus rendering the intelligence itself redundant and the process ended – , or (b) provokes the disorder it was intending to prevent?

Surely, not to tell the public everything is not the same as lying. The withholding of information is not the same as deliberately conning the public for sinister ends. If the public wants to be protected from (for example) Tube bombings, the public must trust the intelligence services to do its work appropriately. And this, as the MI6 boss said, pushes the service into very difficult areas of ethical propriety with which most of us do not have to engage.

The clear and unequivocal rejection of torture was important, but the statement itself begs further questions. The protected must also come to some conclusions about how high a price they are prepared to pay for their security: compelling the security services to refrain from action on certain intelligence even if that silence leads to a preventable terrorist attack being successfully executed?

This is the main problem. I remember meeting an old friend my GCHQ days in London. He was now working in counter-terrorism and observed his secrecy obligations to the letter in our conversation. But, he did express the frustration felt by his colleagues that the world knows (and has a view on) successful terrorist actions (such as the Tube bombings) whilst necessarily remaining ignorant of all the ‘attacks’ and plots that had been foiled, but could not be trumpeted. In other words, how does the public measure the success of the intelligence services when, by definition, it cannot know (a) what it does, (b) how it does it, and (c) where it is successful?

Yes, we have to be aware of the temptation in a secret world to get that world out of proportion and transgress on the wrong side of the ethical lines. However, we also need, at the very least, to recognise that the serious and sometimes unimaginable moral dilemmas faced by those we ask to protect us are tough, complex and hard to resolve tidily in a world that is hidden and mucky. The commentariat do their ethics sitting in a study; the intelligence services do theirs in a less comfortable environment. The commentariat usually has no idea of the ethical nightmares faced by those whom they easily and often ignorantly criticise. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t question and scrutinise, but it does mean they should do so with some recognition of the limitations of their own experience and perspective.

Sir John Sawers was interesting today. But, try thinking about what he said and you realise that he actually said very little. That’s how it is. Maybe that’s how it has to be. As the widely divergent responses to last week’s Wikileaks disclosures demonstrated, this a grey area of moral life, not a black and white one.