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Worse than Orwell could ever imagine: UK spy drama takes dark twist

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An eye in close-up superimposted by a screen of random numbers

Ever since revelations of mass spying, data gathering and web surveillance broke last summer there has been shock and outrage at the government's intrusion into the lives of innocent web users around the world.

However, amid the entirely justified furore caused by the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, there has also been an underlying tone of ‘quelle surprise’.

We all used to joke that governments were spying on us and – hey presto – they were. And as they insisted on telling us, the data they gathered was only metadata, nothing that made citizens identifiable. Yes it was wrong, a bit over the top, but it wasn’t that bad, and after all, it was in our own security interests.

However, things have taken a darker, more insidious twist this week with the news that Yahoo webcam users were spied on by GCHQ and millions of images were taken and stored, many of which caught people in a state of undress.

This isn’t metadata. This is taking photos of people inside their own homes. MP David Davis said the revelations "exceeded even the worst Orwellian nightmares".

"Even in 1984 the citizen was aware that they were being watched,” he added.

It’s worth repeating to really drive this home: the UK government has taken photographs of millions of people inside their own homes, without their knowledge, in order to create a giant mugshot database of innocent citizens.

How on earth did such a system come to be in place? Who devised it, designed it, created and approved it? Who oversaw its operation? Did anyone ever raise a concern that this could be ever so slightly immoral, illegal, outrageous?

To date, the security services have managed to avoid any true scrutiny of their work, hiding behind bland stock statements or the classic ‘that’s a national security issue’ line.

Still, while it is unrealistic to expect spy chiefs to tell all about their efforts to protect us grateful citizens – What would they say anyway? Yes, we take naked photos of you, sorry – there are some with the power to keep the spies in line.

One of these people is the intelligence services commissioner, Sir Mark Waller. His role is to provide “independent judicial oversight” of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and is appointed by parliament.

So his role should involve monitoring these agencies, and reporting on their work and how it is being conducted whenever he is asked to do so by those in the parliament that appointed him.

But in order to get Waller to do this, a committee of MPs – the Home Affairs Committee – have had to force him to do so, so they can find out more about what it is he’s actually overseeing. It’s positively Kafkaesque, to add to the Orwellian reference earlier.

Not only that, but Waller had tried to palm off the Committee by pointing its members in the direction of a report that covered the work of the services between January and December 2012, published in July 2013.

This was at the same time as the Snowden revelations were just appearing, and the report is no help seven months later, when the world’s understanding of the spying being carried out by governments is still only just being understood.

Waller will now give evidence on the 18 March, in a session that is likely to prove testy, and will no doubt feature the phrase ‘I can’t discuss that’ once or twice.

For the rest of us, we are now living in a world that is ever-reliant on digital communications, but where our own government is monitoring it all, from phone calls and emails, to taking photos of us in a state of undress, while those in charge are seemingly immune to any scrutiny.

Orwell may have been 30 years early in his predictions, but he was right. Terrifyingly right.

By V3's Dan Worth, who hears a clock striking thirteen

28 Feb 2014

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