The High Court judgement allowing the government, as Liberty put it, “to spy on every one of us, violating our rights to privacy and free expression” makes legal what the secret state does whether sanctioned by statute or not.
Liberty expresses the concerns of a very wide range of opinion which sees the extensive possibilities opened up by the information revolution as a general threat to the liberties which most citizens take for granted.
This estimable organisation has given as its aim “a targeted surveillance regime that respects our rights.”
If this goal is achieved to the satisfaction of most people for most contingencies it will still leave unresolved the question of where the boundary lies between legitimate surveillance measures carried out by what are, in essence, the coercive instruments of state power, and the illegitimate use of such powers.
But in putting the question in this clear manner Liberty has illustrated a problem which is impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of everyone concerned.
MI5, the domestic branch of our secret police and intelligence empire, has admitted that it has lost control of its data storage operations and that there are “ungoverned” areas in its computer network. This is hardly surprising.
Under the Wilson Labour government, MI5 lost control over a fair part of its personnel including its top management who were running a parallel operation which targeted the prime minister, the man who was supposedly in control of its operations.
Readers of John le Carre's excellent memoirs will recollect that one of his duties during his time in domestic intelligence was to attend the funerals of the various informers the secret state has infiltrated into or recruited from the ranks of the Communist Party. There are readers of these lines who have shared the traditional funeral baked meats and refreshments with citizen Cornwell and his successors.
This is normal. All states, capitalist or socialist maintain a security apparatus and surveillance considered appropriate for the level of threat the state faces. All experience similar problems in maintaining an appropriate balance between operational efficiency and accountability. In the final analysis, whether or not one approves of the existence and operation of such instruments of state power depends on whether the state concerned meets approval.
Where once the local bobby went round to the corner newsagent to ask who got the Daily Worker delivered, today this task is performed by an anonymous algorithm which has the measure of the Morning Star's subscription system.
Up until the digital revolution the secret police ran a massive phone tapping operation — Tinkerbelle — out of a BT building off the Embankment and outstations everywhere. The onerous task of compiling lists of connections between phone numbers under surveillance is now carried out by computers with a valuable supplementary source of information provided by every subversive who maintains a file of Facebook friends.
We should get agitated about mass surveillance principally because our actually existing capitalist state has a proven record of illegitimate uses to which it puts the mass of information it holds about us.
At the same time political realism suggests that where profits and privilege are under threat, the secret state will be deployed to protect those who profit and the system that allows this to continue.
The best guarantee that mass surveillance provides little value for our ruling class is for us to make sure that the movement to end the private appropriation of the wealth that we produce is so widespread and active that the MI5’s computer system is overwhelmed.
When we are all signed up as subversives then none of us are.
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