The only thing that has surprised me about the recent revelations that US intelligence services have been involved in spying on millions of people around the globe, has been the number of people who are surprised. Please tell me that I’m not the only person who already thought something like this was taking place? I’m particularly amused by the shock coming from members of congress upon realising that it wasn’t just those pesky foreigners that were being spied on as originally stated by President Obama, but US citizens as well, ignoring the fact that many of their erstwhile allies are not amused.
Here in the UK, the government is coming under huge pressure following allegations that they obtained data from the PRISM project as a means to spy on their own citizens without obtaining the necessary court approval.
Meanwhile, back in California, many of the world’s largest tech companies are falling over themselves to reassure their users that the US intelligence services have no direct link into their data servers.
When I look at this story, a number of things come to mind:
1. We are all complicit in this
The majority of information that is being gathered has been freely provided by us to the tech companies involved. When we sign up to use a service, we give permission for the service provider to store or activity. Every status update, tweet, SMS and (yes I appreciate the irony) blog post only exists because it has been created by us. I am not suggesting for one moment that what the security services are doing is right, or that they are not breaking the law (as may be the case in some countries.) But by handing our content over to third parties, this type of scenario was always possible.
2. History shows that this was always going to happen
During the post-war years in the US, war was declared on a concept (in this case communism.) What followed were years of paranoia and persecution including the surveillance of hundreds of thousands of individuals and organisations within the US by it’s own intelligence services. Moving along to the present day, war has been declared on a verb (in this case terror). What has followed should not be a surprise. Once the leader of a nation says “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists,” any chance to debate how large a threat has been posed or how to combat the threat is gone, including the usual checks and balances to prevent abuses of power.
3. Who decides the common good?
It would be easy to categorise the intelligence services involved and those who authorised the intelligence gathering as bad or evil, but you have to remember the context in which they are working. I am sure that the people working on these programs believed they were doing so for the common good, that they were collecting this data to protect the citizens of the United States (and handing it on to the British Government to protect their citizens too.). But who decides what is the common good and at what point does the act of protection cause more harm than that which you are being protected from? It shouldn’t be hard for the White House and UK Government to understand how this looks to the rest of the world. Just replace the word US with either China or Iran in my opening paragraphs and suddenly everything takes on a completely different meaning. The whole situation reminds me of a Mitchell and Webb sketch from a few years back (I would just like to point out that I am not saying the current US administration is anything like Nazi Germany.) The question is: in the modern world, are we starting to become the baddies?