Printed in the Guardian on June 25th 2013;
The claims that British intelligence agencies have handed over our personal data to the US for its Prism programme were shocking. However, I have been both amused and amazed at just how many people have approached me to say they cannot believe that my suspicions were correct. I am only surprised that so many people were surprised.
After all, how would you expect spies to behave? Security services handpick recruits who are intelligent, tricky, quick-thinking and determined: the sort of people who will pull out all the stops to protect the public.
This is exactly what our spies should do. However, to make sure they remain accountable, and their methods acceptable in a free society, our security services must operate within a clearly defined legal framework. We cannot expect James Bond to behave like Mother Teresa. That is why there must be clear limits to the spies’ powers.
It is inevitable that any big bureaucracy – government departments or agencies – will at some point misuse the powers it has and the data it holds. This is especially true when that bureaucracy is coming under a very public attack and is forced to defend itself.
Take the Metropolitan police, for example. Yesterday a former undercover police officer revealed that, shortly after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, he was asked by Scotland Yard – already being accused of racism – to find information that would discredit the grieving family’s campaign in the eyes of the press and public.
Sadly this is not an isolated example. Back in 2002 the Labour government set out to smear members of the Paddington Survivors Group, an organisation made up of those injured in the rail crash that killed 31 people. When the group’s leader, Pam Warren, dared to criticise Stephen Byers, then transport secretary, muckraking spin doctors quickly went digging for dirt on her political affiliations and even her sexual history.
Government officials have been on the receiving end of these tactics too. Soon after the communications adviser Martin Sixsmith left the Department for Transport over the “good day to bury bad news” scandal, critical stories appeared in the press. Spin doctors even asked journalists to try and extract embarrassing information from Sixsmith’s friends and colleagues.
In theory Britain’s intelligence agencies are subject to UK law and accountable to parliament. However, as the Prism controversy has exposed, there is nothing to stop GCHQ from handing over our personal information to US security services so they can pick through it at will. What is more, they appear to have been doing so on a large scale. Like Google sending its money offshore to avoid taxes, our intelligence agencies can send our personal data abroad to get around inconvenient laws at home.
While US surveillance laws do restrict access to the private details of American citizens, in their treatment of foreigners’ personal data they do not distinguish between allies and enemies. They can treat information regarding British citizens like that of North Koreans, Syrians or Iranians. If GCHQ has indeed been sending personal data to the US to be mined in this way, it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the rights and freedoms of British citizens.
If we can’t trust government departments, the Met or even our health service to respect our privacy and personal information, we should not trust the security services either. The Americans, no wimps when it comes to dealing with terrorists, have strict controls to protect their citizens’ privacy and respect their rights. Our intelligence agencies need to remember that they are there to defend our constitutional freedoms, not decide what they should be.