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The Lack of Debate Over GCHQ Surveillance Is Dangerous

24/06/2014 14:48 BST | Updated 23/08/2014 10:59 BST

And so their watch continues. Last week's news confirmed what we already knew, courtesy of Edward Snowden - that UK intelligence services have been intercepting our private messages on email and social media networks, supposedly with the backing of the law and in the name of national defence. The media coverage on this issue is often tiresomely predictable: the conservative press dismissing privacy concerns as a modern fad and insisting we pay sycophantic lip-service to anyone in a position of power who so much as mouths the words 'terrorist threat,' while the liberal press skates over any nuances in debates about security by endlessly invoking the name of Orwell (even though we are clearly far from the nightmarish totalitarianism of 1984).

Neither perspective is helpful. However, the pros and cons of surveillance as a whole have been covered elsewhere, by people with far greater technical knowledge than me. The wider issue I believe is a political one - the lack of any kind of open dialogue between civil society and the state on the issue of mass surveillance.

This is worrying largely because fierce debate still rages over whether or not Facebook is a purely social space, and as such whether employers should even have the right to monitor people's behaviour through it, let alone the state. Most people's awareness of how and where their data is used, as well as how much control they have over it, is woefully incomplete, with terms like 'cookies' and 'encryption' remaining a mystery to a lot of internet users, despite the enormous reliance so many of us have on information technology. Nothing close to an informed consensus therefore exists in Britain, as well as many other countries, over what role the internet should play in the relationship between the authorities and the wider population. Ideas like the social contract, which maintains that the state has the right to withhold some individual freedoms in the name of ensuring our personal safety, still apply - however such philosophies were first implemented before the age of widespread telecommunications.

Privacy rights groups have also pointed out that the original Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act from 2000 (or Ripa), which the government's chief security official insists allows private electronic messages to be searched without interception warrants (and by inference, that it should stay that way) was not enacted with social media sites in mind. The legislation therefore needs to be re-examined, if not re-written, in light of the rapid technological developments of the last few years.

The most common argument against any discussion about GCHQ's antics is that individual privacy in the technological sphere is a modern obsession that we should accept we might have to do without. Personally, I've never brought into the mantra that because previous generations didn't have certain ideas or innovations therefore we shouldn't either (after all, you could apply that logic to anything from gay rights to penicillin). I also don't wish to deny that the intelligence services probably contain some very hard-working individuals with a strong sense of civic duty. Yet acknowledging that GCHQ might have an important role to play is not the same as believing they should be completely unaccountable, particularly given that it is already an institution comprised of unelected personnel, with the recent surveillance revelations having demonstrated their ability to exploit loopholes in the law without parliament's knowledge.

It's also been pointed out that all of this comes in the context of our personal data being frequently accessed by Google so that we can be targeted by advertising companies, and therefore to question the right of the state to do so is meaningless. Commercial access to our data undoubtedly raises a whole other range of concerns; yet the key difference is that private corporations are unlikely to have much interest in trying to arrest us if they arbitrarily see the wrong sort of thing in our data. The government and the intelligence services do.

This leads on to another commonly-raised argument against taking mass surveillance seriously, which is that people in a democracy are safe if they have 'nothing to hide.' Again, this argument barely holds water, given that politicians and unelected officials hardly need to be tyrants in order to abuse their power. A myriad of recent examples, from the MPs expenses scandal to the Iraq weapons dossier, prove that state officials in a democracy have a considerable amount of potential to be corrupt, power-hungry and vain. The debate over how the state should use our personal data should therefore not be left purely in their hands.

I am open to the possibility that history might yet vindicate the intelligence services, and it might turn out that mass spying has been in all of our interests. Yet it is not the place of politicians and officials in a democratic society to assume that in every instance they alone know best, and as it stands, the lack of trust our government seems to hold in its own citizens is disturbing. The fact that parliament was also given incomplete information about the nature of the intelligence legislation also poses some disturbing questions. There needs to be far more public debate about the role the internet and surveillance plays in the lives of ordinary people, and the government needs to take seriously next month's investigation into whether or not GCHQ's Tempora programme was a major abuse of power. If David Cameron is so convinced of the legality of the intelligence service's actions, then he should have no problem with allowing the issue to come under greater public scrutiny.

If the British public came out resoundingly in favour of mass surveillance, it would be depressing for privacy advocates, but at least it would be democratic. The situation we currently have is the worst of both worlds.