Snowden's Big Brother isn't as Orwellian as you'd think
Secrets & lies: Spies & GCHQ
Snowden Anniversary Few will forget learning the truth about Santa Claus. Many also felt deep shock on realising that a hitherto ultra-secret NSA/GCHQ programme, revealed in documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, was constantly rating everyone on a naughty-nice metric based on indiscriminate covert surveillance all their online activity – or that GCHQ’s “Cheltenham Doughnut” HQ was shaped like an enormous hard disc for a reason.
A year after the first Snowden revelations – or rather, after a year of Snowden revelations – we know that our surveillance agencies get hold of as much digital material as they can, doing so in some ways that are morally dubious although apparently inside the law… then apparently use only tiny pieces of what they gather.
Take Optic Nerve, the programme through which GCHQ captured and stored still images in bulk from millions of Yahoo! users’ webcam chats, revealed in February. Yahoo! called this “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy”.
But it is worth looking at the detail. The leaked page from GCHQ’s internal wiki noted it was trying to use facial recognition to find footage of specific targets, who it thought were using the Yahoo! system; that it stored still images every five minutes, rather than video footage, to comply with human rights legislation; and that it tried to filter out pornographic images, as well as allowing staff who felt uncomfortable about what they might see to opt out of opening Optic Nerve material.
“You are reminded that under GCHQ’s offensive material policy, the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offence,” the page added. This is an organisation talking to itself, in what it thinks is a secret document. Yet it sounds less like an arm of a Shadow Government than a shadowy arm of the civil service.
Snowden documents have revealed some abuse, such as NSA operatives snooping on romantic partners and potential lovers, which the US agency then admitted. "Loveint" abuse is hardly restricted to secret agencies, with 76 London cops being investigated for alleged misuse of the Police National Computer between 2009 and 2013. A document from the NSA argued the case for leaking six radical Muslims’ penchant for online porn and underage girls; it didn’t say whether the agency went through with the plans.
But overall, the Snowden files have been long on capabilities and short on misuse. If you want both, go back 30 years, when a civil servant in London started writing a diary about his hatred of the government. Influenced by a new girlfriend, he got involved in radical politics, pledging to commit acts of terrorism in order to advance the cause. But before he got that far his diary was read, and he was betrayed, imprisoned and tortured.
Winston Smith did not exist. He was told this while in captivity; as part of his punishment he was erased from the official record. But he never existed in the first place, because he was a character in a novel. Nineteen Eighty Four may have been written by a journalist and set in a lightly fictionalised version of 1940s London, but it is fiction. Sixty-five years after its publication in 1949, and 30 years after the time period it was set in, the point still needs to be made that, despite an excrescence of surveillance cameras and the excesses of security services, the London of George Orwell’s masterpiece was not in place by 1984, and it isn’t now.
Do we live in an Orwellian dystopia? No - at least, not yet
1984's Two Minute Hate: Don't apply it to GCHQ just yet
In an Orwellian world, Edward Snowden would never have made it to Hong Kong, and if he had, his stories would never have been heard by those living under the boot of Big Brother. However, without committing or planning acts of violence, he has been accused of treason against the country that employed him, through making public large quantities of information on the secret-ish work of the NSA, GCHQ and their other partner agencies.
Would they like him not to exist? Probably. Have they succeeded in erasing him? For those who haven’t glanced at the Guardian over the last year, quite the reverse.
For some security services, such as the East German Stasi or Orwell’s fictional Ministry of Truth, their aim was to track and assess every citizen. On the basis of the Snowden files, the NSA and GCHQ collect information on millions because this is the easiest way to ensure they have what they want on a few. That may break the spirit, if not the letter, of the law, and it is deeply uncomfortable and unconscionable to some.
But it is not Orwellian. In the Airstrip One (Britain) of Nineteen Eighty Four, the government tortures and murders its subjects while enforcing total control over the media and the historical record. Britain during the Second World War controlled its citizens tightly – as Orwell knew well, working at a censored BBC.
Since 1945, despite plenty of specific outrages against liberty, the British State largely hasn’t. As a rule, if you can say your country is Orwellian in anything above a whisper, then it probably isn’t.
From Russia with love
Fugitive: Edward Snowden sought temporary asylum in Russia
Edward Snowden is now in Russia, a country that is rather closer to Orwell's dystopian future than Britain or America. Some see this as evidence that he has been working for Russian intelligence. Edward Lucas, in his recent e-book The Snowden Operation doesn’t go that far but argues that he is a “useful idiot” – in the way that naïve left-wing intellectuals were useful to the Soviet Union – who has behaved recklessly rather than heroically.
Snowden has defended himself, in particular when he asked Vladimir Putin about surveillance in Russia on a TV call-in show, saying that it was useful to get the Russian president’s denial on the record so it can be challenged.
But there are more interesting questions than Snowden’s motivations and views, such as how to treat whistleblowers. Snowden decided he could not see an alternative to going to the media, and many whistleblowers within big organisations come to the same conclusion. Both the British and American governments should do much more to protect whistleblowing, essentially by guaranteeing that any manager standing in the way should be committing career suicide. Usually, it is the whistleblower who curtails their career, as all too many cases in Britain’s National Health Service demonstrate.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant
GCHQ: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
More generally, the Snowden files confirm that government surveillance powers and practices need curbing. Both US and UK governments are now undertaking reviews but while the leaks have vividly demonstrated what such surveillance means, its theoretical extent has been obvious for many years. The internet lends itself to mass, rather than targeted, surveillance: while it would be very hard to open every letter, it is often easier to collect digital material indiscriminately rather than specifically.
In some ways, the documents have been oddly reassuring about the behaviour of the agencies, such as GCHQ collecting sexy web-chats only to worry about human rights and saving its staff from an eyeful. But that doesn’t let it off the hook completely. Should it work so closely with the NSA that an American can walk off with many of its secrets? Is the wiki which held the material on OPTIC NERVE the right kind of system for a secret organisation?
If GCHQ had engaged with the media over the last year – and even the NSA has done, a little bit – it might reply that sharing information internally and with its international partners is of great benefit. In most technologically-driven organisations this would be a statement of the obvious. The trouble is, GCHQ is a secret technologically-driven organisation – and that increasingly looks like an oxymoron.
Most big organisations, as well as muzzling rather than welcoming whistleblowers, find it hard to change direction. Like Nineteen Eighty Four, GCHQ is a creation of the Second World War: a time when it was possible to do secret things and expect them to stay that way. It seems all too possible that GCHQ has never quite recovered from its success in breaking the Nazi Enigma encryption machines at Bletchley Park and instinctively wants to repeat it by finding ways into supposedly unbreakable systems, then keep the break secret.
Internal security is a job for the police
Yet as previously argued, a strategy that made sense during total war is actively damaging for an agency undertaking what in some cases is close to police work. It also clashes with the open approach of most techies, people that GCHQ has to attract and retain.
Companies that fail to change generally go out of business, while state sector organisations are swayed by elected representatives and the media. GCHQ has not been subject to these pressures, but even so it has been edging out of the shadows in recent years, with its own website, public recruitment and sponsorship of competitions.
Later this year, relative outsider Robert Hannigan will take over as GCHQ’s director general. He should go much further than his predecessors in opening up the agency: boast about GCHQ’s work, demand greater parliamentary scrutiny and run open days (and I suggest the latter not just because I want to go look around the snoopers' HQ). He should consider offering to transfer GCHQ’s domestic surveillance work to the National Crime Agency, or at least provide much greater transparency over its methods, including disclosure of their use in court. He should also ditch the agency’s name, "Government Communications Headquarters," a long-blown Second World War cover story.
Edward Snowden’s disclosures have already spurred the US government into modest reforms of the NSA. If they push GCHQ, its controlling politicians and managers in the same direction, then a complicated and no doubt flawed American whistleblower will end up doing what his critics argue he has done, in assisting the intelligence service of a foreign country. But the country in question will be Britain, not Russia. ®