Read Chris Huhne on why we’ve been a soft target for spies
Privacy is not an unqualified right
GCHQ, to its great discomfort, is front page news. Its longstanding relationship with the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) is being challenged following disclosures from documents stolen by Edward Snowden. I once heard a grizzled American intelligence officer explain transatlantic differences by saying that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) employs natural herbivores, NSA prefers carnivores and the Central Intelligence Agency are simply omnivores. Recent revelations seem to bear this out. After media accusations that GCHQ used the NSA to get round UK legal restrictions, it has been shown to comply strictly with domestic law. Nor has it been engaging in the legal boundary testing (and politically risky) interceptions that US intelligence seems to have been.
But—the question prompted by the Snowden revelations—can it be considered ethical? Does it conform to a code of decent behaviour over personal privacy considered correct by society today?
Having spent most of my working career in UK defence and intelligence, fighting totalitarianism as part of the Cold War, I have no wish to live under the internet age equivalent—the so-called surveillance state. The Panopticon of the all-seeing state has no attraction for me, nor my old colleagues at GCHQ. They would all accept that respect for privacy is essential for maintaining trust in society and are reassured that privacy is now incorporated as a human right in domestic law, governing all their work. They know, however, that privacy is not an unqualified right. It has to be balanced against other rights, such as our right to justice as detectives investigate crime, and our rights to security for person and property as the activities of terrorists and criminals are uncovered by GCHQ.
The purpose of intelligence is to improve the quality of decision-taking. Intelligence is usually fragmentary and can sometimes be wrong. But used consistently it delivers public value. Most of the information needed can be obtained from open sources, but there are circumstances when the value of secret information in protecting society can be considerable; information that others are determined to keep from you, and that you usually do not want them to know you have, so that they cannot adapt their plans. The supply of relevant digital information about the communications, location, contacts, spending and beliefs of…