The Guardian view on GCHQ: kickstarting the wrong debate

The Guardian:

It is of course welcome if GCHQ is, as Mr Hannigan doesn’t quite say, finally happy to set out and defend the electronic tabs that it keeps on so many innocent citizens; and, on the specific point about privacy, Mr Hannigan is quite correct. In the European convention, the right to respect for privacy in correspondence is not like the absolute bar on torture, but is instead heavily qualified. And much of that qualification is appropriate: targeted interference is justified to protect life and limb. Neither the Guardian nor anybody else of good sense would dispute that when there is reason to believe that a group of correspondents are swapping notes about planting a bomb, the state is entitled to attempt to steam open the electronic envelopes. The debate that is required is not about absolutes, but rather about how to strike some very difficult balances.

This is the debate which has, to a greater or lesser extent, already got under way in Germany, France and the US in the wake of what Edward Snowden revealed. Snooping practices that had been forced out into the open were attacked on the one side, and explained and defended on the other; meanwhile, the detail of policy inched forward, through the evolution of rules and safeguards. In Britain, by contrast, security officials who grew up in a culture that denied their very existence stuck with their traditional “neither confirmed nor denied” stonewall. Sadly, Mr Hannigan’s late-in-the-day call for GCHQ to get engaged appears unattached to any real willingness to reflect on whether the blanket snooping which caused such outrage around the world last year needs to be modified, or even subjected to a more testing standard of accountability than that which the intelligence commissioner’s friendly chats in Cheltenham currently provide. Instead, he blithely asserts that “we have a good story to tell”, and seeks to shift the focus away from the agencies and towards the US tech groups who, he suggests, are harbouring communications among terrorists.

His arguments are entirely beside the point to the real debate required. He bemoans the tech-savviness of young Isis jihadists, undoubtedly a real challenge, but a reflection of generational change, as opposed to anything the tech giants are doing. He vents frustration, too, about the increasing reluctance of the communication companies to share data voluntarily, and their provision of increasing encryption. But he makes no allowance for Anglo-American snooping agencies’ own role in provoking this Silicon Valley response. By secretly opening “back doors” into communication companies’ systems, the intelligence agencies violated the trust on which previous voluntary sharing was based, and introduced new security risks. At the same time, it emerged just how many people – Edward Snowden included – were entrusted with vast quantities of information that was officially rated as secure. In these circumstances, it is scarcely surprising if customers and the corporates who serve them go into a less cooperative mode.

There have long been, and continue to be, legal powers to force the handover of decrypted information by going through the courts. But if we consider the line that GCHQ is taking in court, as opposed to in newspaper comment pages, it would appear that it is not so keen on the checks and the balances involved in putting things on a proper legal footing. It continues to resist publication of its policies, and remains free to monitor domestic Google searches and Facebook without any need for a warrant, on the spurious basis that these are “external communications” because such forms of internet communication can, in a purely technical sense, be carried out of the country en route between UK sender and UK recipient.

Subverting the spirit of the law through such tricks is hardly compatible with the “mature debate” that Mr Hannigan claims to seek. The fear, rather, must be that just as the original “war on terror” facilitated the slide to mass surveillance, the new struggle against Isis is being used as a pretext for refusing to think again.