Empathy is the invisible force that holds society together. Roman Krznaric

For Their Eyes Only

Without secrecy, the state cannot protect its citizens. The public should therefore not have a universal right to transparency.

It was Winston Churchill who argued that the further back you look the further ahead you are able to see. Looking back only twenty years, we can see how the coincidence of two tectonic shifts, one in international affairs the other in technology, will make it necessary in the future to constrain an increasing desire for openness in order to preserve the minimum level of secrecy still necessary for public safety and good government.

The first shift was in what we mean by national security, from a pre-occupation with the territorial integrity of NATO to the need to protect the public from major global threats such as jihadist terrorism, international crime, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and now cyber attacks. That shift, from ‘the Secret State’ fighting the Cold War to the ‘Protecting State’ of today shelters the public from a range of harms but creates a huge demand for intelligence on people – the individuals responsible for these threats.

The public knows enough

The second shift was the rapid advance made in electro-optics that enabled cheap data storage; packet switched global communications networks, the Internet, mobile personal devices and social media. That made possible the supply of relevant digital information about the communications, location, travel, contacts, spending and beliefs of individuals. That data is of great interest to the security authorities – and of huge value to a rapidly developing commercial sector that can exploit it for profit.

In particular the demand for intelligence on terrorist suspects after 9/11 coincided with the availability of new technology for supplying it. The very existence of the technology in turn created new demands (such as for locational data, travel plans and social media intelligence, SOCMINT as I have termed it, including from new customers such as immigration and border agencies). In parallel, in the private sector a comparable interaction between new information demands and new means of supply was taking place, creating commercial benefit from knowledge about potential customers. That prompted private sector investment in the technologies and that in turn enabled more intelligence of value to be accessible by the security authorities, such as airline booking databases and financial payments systems.

The uses of such value-adding information about people (whether for security or profit making purposes) outstripped general public awareness of what is possible. The public knows enough now to question how much more is going on, and to seek reassurance that privacy rights can be protected in this new market for information, and how we are to have confidence that the power over us it gives the state – and the market – is not being abused. The revelations of Edward Snowden are as much a symptom as a cause of a further decline in trust towards the state as more is exposed about the exploitation of personal data.

So far the debate is largely uninformed, leaving the public in turn at the mercy of a combination of extreme individualists on the right and extreme libertarians on the left who predict a future Panoptic state, the surveillance society, where our behaviors are chilled by the fear of constant observation. For them, as President de Gaulle is alleged to have remarked on first visiting California, this will all end badly. Governments, on the other hand, know that public security and future prosperity both depend on being able to exploit securely the opportunities offered by the digital age.

If voting publics are to support their governments in charting a safe path then more transparency is essential to explain the nature of what is being done, and why it is necessary and in the public interest. We need to be assured that our fundamental human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is being protected in ways that do not infringe beyond reasonable necessity our right to privacy for personal and family life. And to know that security authorities and the private sector are operating within legal constraints – reasonable people will accept that the Internet cannot be allowed to be a safe space for criminals such as terrorists and child molesters to communicate without fear of discovery.

Trust by proxy

Knowledge of how exactly the authorities can access the communications of suspects would of course be of great value to terrorists and criminals seeking ways of evading such detection. The public does not have a right to transparency here. The ‘sources and methods’ of modern intelligence have to remain concealed from the public/media if the security authorities are to remain effective and contribute to the protection of the public. ndeed, an intelligence service that cannot keep its necessary secrets secret cannot function, especially in cooperating against global threats. In particular, public trust is needed that what goes on within the closed space of intelligence and law enforcement is legal and in accordance with the wishes of our democratic society.

But that trust has to be by proxy, by having oversight that all is well (and corrective action taken where it is not) in the hands of senior judges and trusted elected representatives of society who are allowed access and can examine not only the heads of the intelligence agencies but also see their top secret files and intelligence material. The stakes in the argument over privacy, for our future security and for our future prosperity, could not be higher.

Read more in this debate: David Brin, David Vincent , Clare Birchall.


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