Many have been left horrified discovering that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) operates a sophisticated database, called PRISM, where internet and telecommunications data is compiled for analysis. And even more shockingly, GCHQ has had access to this programme since at least 2010.
Of course, none of this should be surprising.
The US and the UK have been coordinating their signals intelligence efforts since 1941. More specifically, PRISM was authorised by the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established in 1978 to oversee requests for surveillance warrants on foreign targets within the US, and the programme is legislatively sanctioned by the Protect America Act (2007). It is a legal programme, and GCHQ’s use of PRISM information falls well within the ethical principles laid down to guide British cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies, as the Foreign Secretary has said.
Some specific aspects of the PRISM programme have upset individuals appropriately concerned for their civil liberties. The attention suddenly drawn to the cooperation between private international companies such as Microsoft or Google and American intelligence agencies has worried many. Yet the rules allowing this collaboration were established under the FISA Amendment Act (2008), not in a secret government complex or a democratic vacuum.
While it would be excessive to list them, some of the powers granted by Congress to the US government with regards to the surveillance of its citizens are surprisingly extensive. Any person with an interest in the democratic process in the UK or the US has the opportunity to be well informed, generally speaking, as to the legal limitations on intelligence agencies. There can be no scandal there. But how does one know what the intelligence community actually gets up to?
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence has stated that data ‘accidentally’ collected from American citizens is kept to a minimum, in doing so highlighting the difficulty of not overstepping the legal boundaries which protect the privacy of law-abiding individuals. Participatory democratic process defines the limits of surveillance on private citizens, but what stops these secret programmes from exceeding them? Simply put: oversight. We entrust a small group of our politicians with the duty of preventing breaches of the law and restricting the activities of our intelligence community. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the more pithily named Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) oversee US and UK intelligence efforts respectively.
Therein, however, lies the rub.
In an increasingly hyper-democratic society, where ever greater transparency and direct public scrutiny form an often unchallenged part of the political zeitgeist, the concept of trusting a secretive cabal of second-home switching, speeding-fine avoiding career politicians with our liberty seems outmoded and impossible. The new demands of the modern age are clearly demonstrated by the fact that since 1995, the annual reports of the ISC have been publicly available.
Yet the timeless – and crucial – need the intelligence community has for secrecy is shown by its heavy redaction. Take this informative jewel of information, taken from last year’s annual ISC report: ‘Describing GCHQ’s monitoring capabilities, the Director said: “***”.’
The attention PRISM has garnered in the press is not revelatory, other than as a tantalising, illicit glimpse into a secretive world which is denied to the great majority of us. It relates instead to the fundamental tension between the increasing importance of intelligence to our security and our demands for direct participation in government and full knowledge of the state’s affairs. This dichotomy, though perhaps more acute that it has been previously, is not new, but is a necessary and longstanding problem inherent to the basic operation of a democratic state – in response to which Parliamentary oversight has been prescribed as the most appropriate response.
H.M. Government’s security apparatus – in terms of legal limitations, budgets and overall purpose among other issues – should be (and is) constantly scrutinised by the public. More than anything, the critical eye of the population at large safeguards our liberty. But we cannot and should not expect to peer into the world of secret intelligence.
If people are worried that PRISM and programmes like it go too far, there is a reasonable case to be made for reducing the legal powers of intelligence agencies. Similarly, the often criticised composition of the ISC as a Parliamentary Committee rather than a Committee of Parliamentarians and the influence of the Prime Minister over their appointment and reporting are reasonable points for concern. However, now that PRISM has attained the status of ‘scandal’, modern British popular political culture demands that we are told all of the details in full, as an assurance that our civil liberties are not being compromised. Yet this cannot be done while fully safeguarding the security of the United Kingdom, a security we too often take for granted.
The people want answers! That is reassuring. But they should wait for the ISC report.
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