Anyone who believes we have a choice between privacy or letting the terrorists win is missing the point.
I used to joke that the one good thing about the government's inability to complete large IT projects meant there’d always be a safeguard against the Big Brother state. Poor project management, cost slippage and schedule overrun would always outflank the Thought Police.
Of course, that was before revelations about the US National Security Agency’s mass surveillance - retaining emails, video clips, photos, voice and video calls, social networking details, logins and other data held by a range of US internet firms.
But while the agency's Prism programme does sound like the start of a dystopian nightmare, I’d argue that as a national security project the IT also fails.
Finding meaningful intelligence stored among the petabytes of Instagram pictures of half-eaten sandwiches, dancing LOL Cat gifs and Facebook likes can be no easy task.
Douwe Korff, professor of international law at London Metropolitan University, says national security and privacy are not mutually exclusive aims. ‘Mass surveillance of everyone is neither effective nor compatible with the rule of law,’ he told peers at a cybersecurity evidence session at the House of Lords last week.
This week President Barack Obama is expected to reveal a number of changes to the way the NSA and its associated secret courts operate.
Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, is also urging the UK government to align its legal framework and oversight mechanisms with the expansive surveillance made possible by modern technology. Otherwise, ‘our economy, our privacy and our security will all suffer,’ he writes in a blog for Conservative Home.
‘There is no disagreement that our agencies should do all they can to keep us safe. However, in a democratic society it is wholly wrong for their broad capability to be kept secret, with laws being interpreted far beyond their intention and without any challenge or debate of this widening in scope,’ writes Pickles.
Anyone who believes we have a choice between losing all rights to privacy or letting the terrorists win is missing the point entirely.
Having an effective, consensual approach to national security that involves surveillance as a response to perceived threats rather than as a default setting is in everyone’s interests. And Pickles is quite right to call on the government in furthering this aim.
Kathleen Hall is a Gazette news reporter