The Blog

It Isn't the Spying That Matters It's How They Use the Results

Once upon a time an Englishman's home was his castle but now a whole range of public authorities can get access for one purpose or another. We need to see that this does not happen with confidential information.

If you've read that bit about "moth and dust doth corrupt" in St Matthew's Gospel, you will appreciate the futility of relying on treasures on earth. Perhaps then it is no surprise that Stephen Fry's remarks to the "Don't Spy on Us Coalition", who are campaigning to stop the surveillance by UK spooks of web and mobile communications, should fly a little wide of the mark. For Fry certainly comes under the heading of "treasure". A little too intelligent for an ideal parent perhaps but everybody's idea of the perfect uncle - someone who could always give you the answers to your homework and provide you with a lot of interesting information besides. A Lord Peter Wimsey without the detective skills, as it were.

Now I certainly do not wish Fry to reach heaven prematurely - who after all could fill his place in the TV schedules with such aplomb. It is just that he isn't always right and that he should be wrong on this particular occasion is a little surprising. You see, I have always thought of him as something of an expert on the cyber world, a man with so many computers that he dictates to one as he taps on the keyboard of another. How could such a man, the very idol of those of us who can only use one finger, have come out with the remark that reading letters, telegrams, faxes, postcards is "one of the, meanest, most beastly things a human being could do, and for a government to do, without good cause."

By historic standards, of course, he is right. Interfering with another's post has never been regarded as the act of a gentleman. Those readers who have enjoyed Conan Doyle's "Exploits of Brigadier Gerard", and for those who haven't I would thoroughly recommend it, will recall the Brigadier hiding out on Dartmoor with an envelope addressed to the prison governor which contained the order for his release, an envelope which as a French officer he was far too well mannered to open. But the game has changed. That is not because the authorities are more mean and beastly than they were but because information is no longer collected in the way in which it was.

Look at the academics. Once upon a time a researcher would begin by considering his subject generally. After reading some papers and thinking about it all a bit, he would apply what he had learned to the subject in hand and find that the scope of his enquiry was narrowing inexorably towards a conclusion. Ask modern students to find something out and, like as not, they will come back staggering under the weight of a pile of computer printouts of varying relevance with the complacent assurance that this is all there is to be found on the subject.

Regrettable that may be, but it is the way of the world and the world of espionage is no special case. Stories about "the Circus" make good reading but the emphasis has moved from reliance on infiltrators and covert messages to the world of searches. Reliance on search engines for information only works if you have something to search so you can see why the agencies regard access to e-traffic as essential. One wonders, however, how much of it is actually read. No doubt they read Stephen Fry's as a homage to his prose but I think they would find reading the dozen or so ill-constructed missives that leave my desk each day an unrewarding experience. If they read everyone's messages they would need to employ half the population.

The truth is of course they don't really read them in the ordinary sense. They don't say "it's getting late, Bloggins, I'll take all these ones about organising church fetes home to read". No, what they actually do is to search for particular combinations of words which would indicate terrorist or subversive activity. So they don't read it, but, then again, they could. The information they have, if used in a particular way, could seriously undermine our liberties.

If it is really a question of liberties rather than privacy the important question must be how our liberties can be protected. To deny access to e-traffic would be to push national security back out of search technology, an approach about as likely to succeed as holding back the waves. Perhaps then the right course is to limit the organisations to which the information is made available and to make sure that those which do receive it are closely controlled. If I indulged in some harmless but spectacular sexual practice, I do not think it would matter very much if the security services knew about it - provided of course that they only used their information in pursuit of terrorism. It would be quite another story if my local authority knew about it - particularly if at that time I had some enemies among the councillors.

Once upon a time an Englishman's home was his castle but now a whole range of public authorities can get access for one purpose or another. We need to see that this does not happen with confidential information. There seems little harm in it being used by those hunting down terrorists but we need a firewall to prevent it going elsewhere. Add to the word "terrorist" the words "paedophiles" and "tax evaders" and then think who will claim that they should see the search results. Go on, close your eyes and try it now. You will see what I mean.