Too many commentators conclude that we are sliding into a society where behavior is restricted by even the possibility of state surveillanceby David Omand / April 29, 2014 / Leave a comment
Demonstrators against PRISM wearing Edward Snowden masks: Have the whistleblower’s revelations led to undue paranoia?
© Mike Herbst
The latest Snowden revelation: the NSA has the capability—codenamed MINDPRISM—to mine the thought patterns of millions of people simultaneously, collection that may involve thousands of Americans. The Powerpoint slide has the logo of an eagle’s claw clutching a human brain. “With MINDPRISM, we can stay one step ahead of communication itself. If the target can think it, we can collect it,” an NSA official commented. “We used to know what Putin was planning before he called anyone we were covering now we’re just getting a lot of hummed Russian advertising jingles—even in the run-up to the Crimea invasion. We’ve lost a huge asset here.” Before readers reach for their keyboards, yes, you can read all about it on the Lawfare blog—for 1 April.
That April fool distils the essence of the debate triggered by media exposure of material stolen by Edward Snowden. Is there no limit to what the NSA is prepared to do by way of mass surveillance, to spy on Americans as well as foreign leaders? Would the intelligence oversight committees ever be told? Is it legal? Would our GCHQ work with NSA to use the technique to spy on the British population, and evade British law? And has the revelation damaged our security?
The purpose of intelligence work remains, even in the digital age, to help improve the quality of decision making by reducing ignorance about the threats that face us. Obstinately, there remains information that the enemies of our free society—the dictators, terrorists, insurgents, cyber-, narco-and paedophile and other criminal gangs—want to prevent us knowing. It is the very purpose of secret intelligence to overcome the will of these others and thus to support our military commanders, police officers and policymakers.
From that definition flows two conclusions. First, that there is inescapable moral hazard to collecting secret intelligence, not least from the intrusion into privacy that it can involve. The answer to that is to manage the risk through carefully drawn law and rigorous legal and Parliamentary oversight to maintain public trust that the behaviour of intelligence agencies is lawful, proportionate and necessary.
The second conclusion is that oversight must be managed so that the detail of sources and methods of intelligence remain confidential so that our adversaries…