A glance at Wednesday’s newspaper headlines about the hacking capabilities of security services in Britain and the US would have cheered privacy advocates. “Spy in your TV” was the splash in the Sun. The Mirror, also on the front page, had “MI5 bugging smart TVs”. The Times, again on the front, had: “Thousands of CIA spy files posted on internet: British intelligence helped hack TVs and phones”. And the Mail: “How our spooks helped the CIA create ‘spy TVs’”.
Contrast that with the approach of most of the British media over the past four years. When the Guardian first published revelations about mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden in June 2013, the reaction of just about every other UK media outlet – including the BBC, though it denies it – was largely to ignore the disclosures, attack the Guardian, attack Snowden or simply report the reaction of the government and the intelligence agencies.
The government threatened to halt the coverage, the police began a criminal investigation – which is still open – and the intelligence agencies predicted the paper’s editors and reporters would have “blood on their hands”. The Mail and others joined in, accusing the Guardian of revealing secrets to terrorists. The Mail, in an editorial, spoke of “the paper that helps Britain’s enemies”. Snowden’s revelations about the scale of intrusion was a huge story around the world, especially in the US and countries such as Germany, but went largely unreported in the UK. Could Wednesday’s front pages signal the moment when the public began to care about the issue in the same way that phone hacking failed to ignite public interest until the revelation in 2011 that the News of the World hacked into the phone of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler?
Over the past four years, privacy campaigners have worked to raise awareness about mass surveillance – the intelligence agencies prefer “bulk data collection”. This has included revelations about how smartphones could be hacked and turned into mics, how emails and messaging services could easily be accessed and even how, according to Snowden in an interview, the intelligence agencies could gain access to cameras on laptops, a system abused to spy on couples having sex. But little of this seems to have impinged on the wider public consciousness. Until this week’s WikiLeaks publication of a secret document about how the CIA and Britain’s MI5 collaborated on how to monitor rooms through televisions.
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The snooper’s charter is back
Better late than never for the rest of the media to climb aboard, you might say. But it really is late in the day. In the intervening years, the British government, having initially denied there was any problem with surveillance and having claimed that existing laws were fit for purpose, has been forced into introducing new legislation last year, the Investigatory Powers Act, to make legal all the hacking powers that were being deployed.
Intelligence agencies argue, rightly, that they need surveillance powers to track terrorists and hostile intelligence agencies. It is easy to understand why they would want to be able to listen in through a television set in a home or hotel room occupied by a terrorist group or Russian or Chinese spy cell. But what the agencies have failed to explain is why they need the powers of mass surveillance. The balance between privacy and surveillance is completely out of kilter. The UK, as a result of the Investigatory Powers Act, now has the most intrusive surveillance in the western world. That is a direct result of the lack of public awareness; that, in turn is a direct result of the lack of media coverage.
It is unrealistic to expect the intelligence agencies, having acquired all these digital tools and tricks, to stop employing them. What is needed to help redress the balance is increased scrutiny by parliamentarians, which is, and has for too long been, near-negligible. Neither the parliamentary intelligence committee nor the retired judges supposedly engaged in oversight have shown the necessary scepticism.
One senior member of the parliamentary intelligence committee, on announcing he would hold an inquiry into the Snowden revelations, said his starting point was that he believed the agencies had done nothing wrong.
Nor do most of those serving in these supposedly oversight jobs have the necessary technical background. One of the MPs tasked with investigating the work of the UK’s surveillance agency GCHQ – which has some of the most sophisticated IT specialists in the world – was surprised to learn that his smartphone, which he had owned for some time, was capable of recording interviews and taking pictures.
One of the accusations made by the Mail, egged on by the security services, was that the Snowden revelations revealed surveillance techniques to terrorists and other enemies of the UK. That argument seems to have been dropped in their coverage of the television snooping capability.
It is good to see the surveillance debate go mainstream. The tragedy is that it has happened four years too late in terms of influencing legislation. Still, the need for proper parliamentary and judicial oversight is as urgent as ever. A media now apparently alive to the risks should fight for that.