Who will protect us from the spies?

Posted 26 June 2013 Written by Steven Friedman
Category Transparency

WHO will protect us from those who claim to be our protectors? Leaks claiming that British intelligence spied on delegations, including ours, at an international meeting have been met largely with a yawn. We all know countries spy on each other; we assume that our intelligence agents spy on others too. But no one seemed interested in asking a question that sheds light on one of our key debates — whether spying is necessarily useful to the citizens on whose behalf it is supposedly done, writes Steven Friedman in Business Day.

It has become common sense to accept what governments and intelligence agencies tell us — that spying gives countries an advantage in diplomacy and protects them from threats. But this "obvious" point is not nearly as self-evident as it seems.

In what way was the UK better off because it spied on diplomats at a meeting? As none of the states plan violence against it, spying did not make the UK safer. In what way did hacking into phones tell it anything about our bargaining position and that of other countries that it could not have learned by reading documents? How do we know that intelligence agents find anything out that could not have been learned by following the media and speaking to competent analysts?

We do not know because secrecy is crucial to the mystique of intelligence work. Spies and the governments that employ them insist that they gather information that must be kept secret if they are to protect us and advance our interests. This is very convenient to spies and governments: after the revelations were published, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared sternly that he would, as people who hold his office always do, refuse to talk publicly about intelligence or security. This makes him sound very important and responsible. It also conveniently relieves him of the embarrassment of having to explain how what the agents were doing was in the UK’s national interest.

In all countries, intelligence agencies try to protect themselves from public scrutiny by insisting that it is not in our interests to know what they do. That spies were prying into the affairs of diplomats for no good reason tells us they want to shield themselves, not to protect us from enemies, but to prevent us discovering how little what they do contributes to our safety. Recent leaks about spying operations do little to suggest that the spies were unearthing information that protected anyone or made their countries stronger.

If we knew exactly what intelligence agencies do, we may well find that they violate our rights and invade our privacy — but that the information they uncover is useless or available from published sources.

All of this is important to a current issue — the Protection of State Information Bill.

Much of the media and most nongovernmental organisations that have campaigned against the bill have given us a misleading picture of what is at stake. It is not an attempt by the government to prevent us knowing about corruption and mismanagement — it makes it an offence to classify information to cover up either. It is, rather, an attempt to protect the security and intelligence communities from scrutiny — a prospect that seems not to bother those who have campaigned against it.

Throughout the debate on the bill, campaigners have agreed that states have a right to protect secrets and that it is appropriate to pass laws to protect those who gather intelligence. Their worry is that the bill may be used to protect corrupt officials, not to keep intelligence secret. This misses the point. The purpose of the bill is to protect the intelligence gatherers. The leaks about the UK’s spying suggest that what is being protected is not activity that makes people safer, but gratuitous invasions of privacy, which do nothing to promote the interests of the citizens the snooping is meant to serve.

Concern that here, too, intelligence gathering is used for purposes that do not serve the citizenry, is supported by the evidence. The ludicrous Browse Mole report and the infamous "spy tapes" confirm that intelligence is used to fight political battles and that a law that prevents the public knowing about the activities of those who do this shields those who misuse national resources rather than makes us safer.

It is no comfort that the bill, like similar laws in other democracies, will protect the intelligence services rather than corrupt politicians or officials who mismanage the public’s business. The real question is whether we want to be prevented from knowing if intelligence operatives violate people’s rights to protect us or to store data we do not need or which they use to prey on us.

We should be asking not whether the bill really will protect the spies rather than the politicians — but whether it serves the interests of the public to give a blank cheque to agencies obsessed with invading the privacy of others, even though doing this serves no useful purpose.

• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Related story: No easy passage for Secrecy Bill


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