Our politicians have failed in their duty to protect our privacy. Now we must act

Unless we make a mighty fuss, the establishment will fold its arms and do nothing

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The Independent Online

A primary duty of government is to maintain the security of citizens. This requirement is generally read to mean safety from attacks by hostile powers. It can also be said to refer to the safety of one’s person. But there is a third element, equally important, though less often discussed. This is the duty to minimise interference in the private lives of citizens. We must be able to maintain our personal space.

It now turns out that this last aspect has been put in jeopardy without us even knowing, according to the latest revelations of the whistleblower Edward Snowden. He has described a secret deal that was made between British intelligence officials and America’s National Security Agency (NSA) in 2007. The existing rules were changed to allow the NSA to analyse and retain any British citizen’s mobile phone and fax numbers, emails and internet addresses swept up by its dragnet. Previously, this data had been stripped out of NSA databases – “minimised”, as the intelligence agencies call it – under rules agreed between the two countries.

It should be added that these communications were “incidentally collected” by the NSA, meaning that the individuals were not the initial targets of surveillance operations and therefore were not suspected of wrongdoing. In other words, these “individuals” are you and me, sending emails and making mobile phone calls. They are you and me going about our daily affairs.

What, then, do the spy agencies do with this material that they shouldn’t be collecting? They conduct so-called “pattern of life” or “contact-chaining” analyses, under which they can look up to three “hops” away from a target of interest. In effect, once they have broken into our private lives, they can examine the communications of a friend of a friend of a friend. One can legitimately wonder whether we have any truly private lives left at all.

So how did this come about? Who authorised this gross infringement of our liberties? Now unless we all make a mighty fuss about it, and I urge the readers of this newspaper to do so, the political establishment will fold its arms and say and do as little as possible. It is best to think that here we are dealing not with the government of the day, but with the state itself. And by the state, we mean the permanent officials of the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice. They have spent years in the system. They can often bend ministers to their will. They are ruthless and see no harm in telling untruths if they think it is necessary to do so for the protection of the state. The state is their religion. It pays them; it grants them honours unavailable to ordinary citizens for equivalent work and it provides them with generous pensions that are protected against inflation. The state means everything to them.

There are two ways of being cross about what has happened. One is to demand to know who made the agreement with the NSA. Was it intelligence officials on their own? Who was their boss at the time? Didn’t he or she see what was involved? Or were ministers brought into the loop? Which ministers? Did the Cabinet discuss this important issue that requires the balancing of different interests? What about the prime minister at the time? Was it Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, both of whom were in office during 2007? Whatever the answers to the previous questions, the prime minister had final responsibility.

The second way of being cross is to start from the other end. Try to say what the rules should be here. And how they should be enforced. For instance, I should like to see a duty laid on government ministers to protect the right of citizens to as full a private life as possible. Perhaps the Ministerial Code that is republished at the beginning of every Parliament would be the right place for this. In the 2010 version, the new Prime Minister, David Cameron, wrote: “Our new government has a particular and historic responsibility: to rebuild confidence in our political system.

“After the scandals of recent years, people have lost faith in politics and politicians. It is our duty to restore their trust. It is not enough simply to make a difference. We must be different.”

Then further on, the code states: “Before publishing a policy statement (white paper) or a consultation paper (green paper), departments should consider whether it raises issues which require full collective ministerial consideration through the appropriate Cabinet Committee.”

One issue that should always be considered is whether the proposed course of action would interfere with sanctity of citizens’ private lives. But nothing will change unless we citizens can find ways of expressing our extreme displeasure at what has happened. We can sign online petitions to Downing Street; we can use the social media to the full and we can lobby MPs. It is in our hands.

Funnily enough, Mr Cameron also wrote: “We must remember that we are not masters but servants.”

When a surfeit of pleasure brings death of emotion

In listening to music, I have again fallen into a trap from which I thought I had escaped many years ago – playing my favourite pieces so often that I finally spoil my enjoyment of them. This time the temptation is something I first heard in the cinema.

It is the wonderful adagio from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that introduces Visconti’s film Death in Venice, itself based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name. The film was released in 1971. Dirk Bogarde memorably played the fictional composer, Gustav von Aschenbach.

The film opens with the quiet mysterious first bars of the adagio, which then swells out as if it were a series of slow waves on the surface of the sea. A steamer comes into view, carrying von Aschenbach to Venice. Finally the glorious, romantic city itself appears. The beautiful music seems made for the film; in fact, the novella was written in 1912, a very few years after the music was composed.

At all events, in the cinema I was completely overwhelmed and stunned. I bought the music, and started listening to it over and over again. I listened to it so much that eventually its impact dimmed. I stopped listening to it, and 40 years passed. Then I went to an exhibition at the National Gallery, “Facing the Modern; the Portrait in Vienna, 1900”. And I thought that if I really wanted to understand the period I ought to go back to listening to Mahler, who was working in Vienna when he wrote his Fifth Symphony.

So I recently played the adagio again. The film, with the boat slowly approaching Venice with von Aschenbach/Bogarde huddled in a deckchair, came back to me with full force, and I was captivated once more. I listened to it twice last night. Perhaps I should stop there.