Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Ask not on whom the spooks spy – they spy on you

It was great to hear Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of UK terrorist legislation, talking to the BBC the other day. It was sheer nonsense, he pointed out, to believe that the security services could possibly spend their time checking on all our e-mails and internet activity. As if they had the time, he suggested, while they were engaged in the already daunting task of tracking down terrorists.

That sounds perfectly plausible. Of course the security services can’t possibly be randomly checking up on all of us, all of the time. But if anyone’s inclined to take comfort from that fact, I strongly suggest they think again. And consider how police states work.

Take a look at the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, perhaps most striking of all, East Germany. They worked on the basis of denunciation. Individual citizens denounced others. The details they supplied worked their way through the system to the Gestapo, KGB or Stasi. And those august institutions took a look into the matter.

This meant they weren't trawling the whole population, seeking out backsliders. They were focusing on specific individuals.

Protecting you – or just keeping tabs on you?
That’s what people who retain their quaint attachment to the notion of human rights find objectionable in the British government’s recent moves, to take to itself greater powers to act against individuals it suspects of not being quite nice. Because abuse of power doesn’t take place against masses; it takes places against individuals picked out of the mass.

Granting the security services the right to carry out mass surveillance grants them the right to target any individual. With governments who are increasingly arrogating to themselves the right to choose which individuals to target, it’s particularly worrying to see the security forces so effective at spying on anyone it chooses.

Our present government, here in Britain, is so thoroughly awful that I find it painfully hard to say anything relatively cordial about it. But, just for the sake of fairness, I have to admit that, while it would no doubt like to see its opponents vanish from the scene, it probably feels it ought to stop short of ushering in a fully-fledged police state to achieve that desirable goal.

But what if someone with fewer scruples – perhaps I should say, even fewer scruples – came to power, such as UKIP? Do you think they would hesitate to use profoundly anti-democratic methods against their opponents?

The process would work like this. They would start, with the full support of large numbers, by targeting minorities with undesirable proclivities – Islamist terrorist suspects, for instance, or illegal immigrants. From there, it would be easy to slip towards action against all devout Muslims and then all Muslims, or towards the immigrant friends of illegal immigrants, and then to all immigrants, and finally to anyone who sympathises with immigrants.

From sympathisers with immigrants, it’s a short step to embrace anyone who has no sympathy for the enlightened views of UKIPers. And when I say “embrace”, I’m not thinking mother and child, I’m thinking boa and rodent.

Our main aim has to be keeping them well away from power in the first place. But, just in case they get anywhere near it, perhaps we ought to do what we can at least to ensure that they don’t find a huge, well-oiled machine at their disposal to spy on us all.

Because don’t forget, as Lord Carlile made clear, just because the machine can spy on all of us doesn’t mean it will. Oh no. The truth of the mater is that, because the machine can spy on us all, it can spy on just anyone.

And that could be you.

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