Monday, 24 June 2013

Wake up, Spectator

As you will know thanks to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US and the UK's GCHQ have been intercepting hundreds of millions of people's communications.

Mr Snowden's revelations have been published in the Guardian from 6 June 2013 onwards and here in the UK the public have been thoroughly patronised ever since by all other major media outlets.

Take the Spectator, for example. In their 15 June 2013 edition the leading article, 'Top Secrets', says:
This week’s exposé of the US National Security Agency has been heralded as the greatest intelligence leak since the Pentagon Papers. It is nothing of the sort. Far from revealing some institutional outrage, the whistleblower Edward Snowden merely appears to have found what any low-level intelligence source might find. Intelligence agencies try to find things out about certain people. Spies spy, and can be innovative in their techniques. Rapid technological advances mean that the amount of snooping is growing at a faster rate than laws and regulations have been able keep up. But where is the scandal?
The spying is being done for our own good, to protect us, by two benevolent states, the spies are dedicated public servants doing their patriotic duty, what else would we expect, we would have to be naïve and credulous and other-worldly to be surprised, everyone knew about it, ...

That's the line. Strange, in that case, that the Spectator have never mentioned it before.

The allegation is, according to the Spectator, that the NSA and GCHQ spy on each other's citizens, thereby getting round the fact that it's illegal for them to spy on their own citizens:
Even if true, this has not proven to be a matter of any great concern for the general public. Opinion polls on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that people are not particularly bothered. People appear to recognise that the security agencies must exercise unique powers to intercept and thwart people who wish to harm us.
Since when did the Spectator abdicate thought and resolve political issues by appealing to opinion polls?

There's a one-word answer to that – never. Which suggests that the article wasn't written spontaneously. The editor is following a script. And not very well, because the article goes on to say:
The same is not true for the taxman, who would quite like some of these powers for himself. The government’s ‘snooper’s charter’ is an attempt to give any government department, even town halls, various degrees of power to pry in the name of ‘national security’ ...
"The same is not true for the taxman"? Why not? Same logic – it's all for the public good, the state has a duty to collect the right amount of tax, nothing-to-hide-nothing-to-fear, what else would we expect, ... Now who's being naïve and credulous and other-worldly?

Given that the occasion for the Spectator's leading article is the publication of the NSA's and GCHQ's secrets, how could they expect to be taken seriously when they write:
Spies are quite good at keeping secrets; governments are not.
And then this:
... what might happen if information relating to people’s medical records were leaked to a government employer or a health insurance company?
"What might happen if information relating to people’s medical records were leaked"? What do they mean "if"? This is on the way to becoming government policy, as the Spectator should know.

Stephan Shakespeare, the founder of YouGov, the political polling organisation, has been asked to produce a National Data Strategy. The state should allow people's health and education data to be exploited, he says in the Shakespeare Review, and his recommendations have been welcomed by Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister.

The Spectator should also know that Mr Maude's digital-by-default policy for public services depends on so-called "identity providers" getting us all on-line with a personal data store. And that his Electoral Registration and Administration Act provides for us all to maintain our entry on the electoral roll on-line – the electoral roll, that is, which will be used for the 2015 general election. And that his G-Cloud policy is the fastest way yet discovered for the government to lose control of our data.

It's about time the Spectator woke up to midata, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills initiative which is meant to use the same "identity providers" to get us to store our personal data on-line where GCHQ and the NSA can get at it for our own good:
My name is Stephen and I head up the work on consumer confidence and trust which is part of the midata voluntary programme ... A data-enabled online market place will create new services that will take your data and do some really interesting things with it ...

Hi I’m Dan, Director of the midata Innovation Lab, part of the midata voluntary programme ... By putting information back into the hands of consumers, and by encouraging business to release data, investing in products that consumers want and that use this information, we will help empower UK consumers in a really meaningful way ...

I’m Richard and I chair one of the expert working groups looking at what we need to do to ensure that consumers can be confident when they allow their data to be passed to and used by third parties who are developing new and innovative applications to aggregate and use existing data in a way that brings benefits to users of these new services ... A data rich economy will allow lots of innovative companies to create brand new services that will enable you to take your data and do some really interesting things with it, with the ultimate goal of making sure you can get the best deal across a range of services.
There are safeguards, the Spectator tell us:
In reality, MI5 and MI6 already have powers to intercept anything categorised as a ‘communication’. Permission is needed — but it is sought and granted. It is wrong for MI5 or the CIA to engage in a ruse to cut out the paperwork. But let us not pretend this makes either into a 21st-century Stasi.
Public confidence in those safeguards is not increased by Mr Maude's attitude to data-sharing between, say, GCHQ and HMRC:
I want to bust the myths around the complexities of data sharing ... we aim to find effective ways of using and sharing data for the good of everyone.
Who's in charge of the £650 million cybersecurity budget that presumably paid for GCHQ's communications interception systems? Francis Maude.

The Spectator quite properly holds out against the provisions of the Leveson report. Let's see a little of the same prudently sceptical spirit applied to this NSA and GCHQ business.

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Updated 27 December 2013:

Wake up, Spectator?

Fraser Nelson is the Editor of the Spectator.

And judging by an article of his in today's Telegraph six months after the post above was published he's woken up, please see The state should be exposing the cyber-snoops, not joining them.

Hallelujah.

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