Editorial: A nation of suspects won’t trust the state

Intelligence agencies’ tools must be updated, not expanded

By Matt.Ross

01 Jul 2013

Tasked with working to produce public benefits, operating within largely benevolent organisations, yet constrained by laws and systems that limit their efficiency and effectiveness, it’s easy for public servants to develop plans that – however well-meaning – unjustifiably expand the power of the state. The ID cards plan is a good example: whilst improving services, it would have linked the many organisations established to meet the public’s needs together into a single, overweening and over-powerful state.

ID cards involved a wide range of public bodies, many of them subject to close democratic and media scrutiny – an essential safeguard against abuse and mission creep. But when such plans involve the intelligence and security services, the risks are greater still. Given the deadly threats they handle, our enemies’ utter lack of restraint, and the closed and secretive cultures essential in their role, these officials face even bigger temptations to extend their powers. Here, though, the lack of public scrutiny makes it still more important that their calls for stronger tools are balanced against individuals’ right to privacy. Nobody who’s followed the revelations about undercover Met officers’ work within protest movements and the Stephen Lawrence campaign, or the Bishop of Liverpool’s Hillsborough inquiry, or the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by UK forces, can believe that our protectors always put the public interest before their own.

The government’s plans to broaden intelligence agencies’ access to electronic communications (see Liberty's opinion piece for CSW) involve a big shift in power from the governed to the government. Intelligence officials argue that they’d simply align their online and offline powers – but that would involve awarding warrants to search inboxes and check browsers, not letting them hoover up everybody’s communications for scrutiny using analytics tools.

In pursuing these plans, intelligence operatives risk undermining their own work. For whilst communications data is essential in the fight against terrorism, so too is the human intelligence supplied by UK citizens. And though people are likely to share information with agencies viewed as allies against our attackers, that trust – particularly amongst those with the most valuable information – will fray if the intelligence agencies appear to see us all as suspects, and to wish to pry into the private life of every citizen.

If there’s truth in Edward Snowden’s allegations that GCHQ has been circumventing UK law in concert with the Americans, it will be clear that some intelligence officials have abandoned their duty to balance our protection against our rights. Nobody, of course, expects the security services to trust us all; but an organisation that investigates absolutely everybody will surely be met with widespread suspicion. So Snowden points us to a bigger truth: it’s hard to serve and protect people within an open and democratic system, but the only way to do so is to win people’s trust – not to demonstrate that you don’t, in fact, trust anybody at all.

Matt Ross, Editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk

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