What is it that shocked European
politicians most about the revelation that the United States government is eavesdropping
on them? And what is so shocking in the
news that the American and British governments are listening in to private
conversations of millions of its citizens?
I’m asking because it doesn’t
seem to be so much the mere fact of intelligence-gathering – as revealed by
whistle-blower Edward Snowden – that has people up in arms as the sheer scale
Elmer Brok, chairman of the
European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee was among the astounded. “The
spying has reached dimensions that I did not think were possible for a
democratic country,” he tells the New
York Times. “America
has “lost all balance – George Orwell is nothing by comparison.”
Well, I suppose it was inevitable
that George’s name would pop up sooner or later.
I don’t know how old Elmer is,
but if he’s as ancient as I am, he must have seen a few James Bond films,
perhaps even read some of Ian Fleming’s books.
He may not have read John le Carre, but I’m sure he’s heard of George
Smiley’s people. And even if he doesn’t
have much time for television, he must be vaguely aware of the dozens of shows over
the years in which secret agents of the United
States once lurked in dark alleys in the capitals of northern
Europe hoping to root out Communists, and
later shuffled around more sun-drenched locations hunting down terrorists.
The Americans have been spying on
Europe since the Second World War. They spied on Britain, its most steadfast ally. I’m sure we spied on them, too. Something about keeping your enemies close
but your friends closer. The United States
used to do it mainly through the offices of the Central Intelligence Agency. Now that the revolution in the technology of
communication has made it easy to extract, store and analyze vast amounts of
data, requiring a different breed of spook altogether, it’s apparently being done
through an outfit called the National Security Agency.
If intelligence-gathering is old
hat, then what’s all the fuss about the Edward Snowden revelations? The message hasn’t changed, only the medium. This new medium makes life in the spook world
a whole lot easier. The Internet
processors are limitless in scope; billions of recorded ‘connections’ can be
made daily. Mr. Brok mentioned that the US made 60 million in one day in Germany alone.
At least the new medium obviates
the need to put hundreds of gun-toting agents in harm’s way in every
rat-infested hell-hole of the world. All
that’s needed now is a few dozen geeks slumped in perfect safety in front of
screens in some laboratory in say, Omaha.
None of this finds me surprised,
let alone shocked. What does surprise me, though, is how little outrage I feel. Yes, yes, I know it’s all wrong that
government intelligence agencies are hacking their way into our telephones, examining
the inane chatter in our social media messages, reading our emails, poring over
our bank accounts – and whatever other fodder they shovel into their insatiable
Little-Shop-of-Horrors computers. But somehow I can’t work myself up into the
lather that seems to be expected of me.
Part of the reason, I think, is
that I’m not sufficiently convinced that the snoopers will find much in the way
of useful data. Assuming that the bad
guys are every bit as computer-literate as the good guys, why would they put
stuff out on the airwaves likely to expose or incriminate them?
I’m sure Achmed the mad bomber isn’t
about to tweet his favourite Semtex supplier a message saying, “hey shaun need
plastic for us embassy job kabul
kuly 7 lol”. No more than the
industrialist with a revolutionary new hair restoration product is going to
text the formula to his mistress; or the trade commissioner email his chief
negotiator details of their new strategy.
Aha, you say, but the
intelligence gatherers don’t need to hear anything that blatant. They are
expert at sifting through the most innocent-sounding transmissions, even those
sent in code, and coming up with some interesting conclusions. Intelligence-gathering these days requires
the other kind of intelligence. Sometimes,
merely the identity of the recipients is a giveaway that something’s afoot.
Well, one could argue that if
they’re smart enough to be doing that, and more, then maybe we in the western
democracies need them more than we think we do.
But presumably the ‘enemy’, or the competition, or whatever it is that
represents the ‘other side’, has the same expertise as we do. So, it’s all cancelled out. We know what China’s doing; the Chinese know
what we’re doing. It’s a draw. An honourable tie.
By now you’re probably saying in
an exasperated tone of voice that it’s not the high-level political and
military stuff we should be worried about, but the potential for low-level abuse
of Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary Citizen. Well,
yes, I do admit to feeling a little exposed in that respect, but only a
little. My problem is that I can’t think
of anything that I am prepared to transmit on my computer or speak into my
telephone that could possibly be used by these data harvesters to do me
harm. Anything sensitive I keep out of
Talk about complacent, I hear you
muttering. Well, I plead guilty as
charged. At least until the government –
any government – demonstrates that its surveillance agencies are dangerously
less competent and dysfunctional than any of the other institutions under its
control, I expect to sleep soundly at night.
Okay, you win. Snowden is right. It’s an absolute bloody outrage. Now someone find him a bed-sit in Lima, please.