Prism, Edward Snowden the whistleblower and the frenzy that makes no sense

Freedom of information is all very well, but the act of shining a light on darkness generates a sense of breathless excitement that the documents themselves often lack

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A sequence guaranteed to fuel paranoia about the state and privacy in western democracies is for a whistleblower to be forced into sudden and exotic exile as he exposes conduct that the rest of us are not supposed to know anything about.

The precise nature of the conduct is almost lost in the intoxicating dynamic of the heroic individual taking on mighty institutions. Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old computer spy, is the latest figure to assume the romantic role. Julian Assange is the ultimate model, publishing a mountain of supposedly-shocking secret documents. The act of shining light on darkness generated a sense of breathless excitement that the documents often lacked.

In both the case of Snowden and Assange the reaction of shocked and fearful alarm at how governments dare to use supposedly private data is wholly misjudged. On many levels the fear is at odds with what we know is happening.

Step back from the broad outlines of the latest Hollywood-style thriller and consider what we have discovered. Is it especially shocking that intelligence agencies have noted potential terrorists deploy modern forms of communication, and have therefore concluded that access to such exchanges might be of some use to them? Of course such access can be abused, but I suspect that the various agencies do not have enough time and resources to keep up with what they discover in relation to possible terrorist threats, let alone wasting many minutes checking emails or Google search activities of the rest of us. Indeed I doubt if they would be very interested if they had the time.

Nor is it shocking that governments cooperate on the pooling of such sensitively acquired intelligence. It would be more surprising and alarming if they did not. Did UK intelligence make use of a secret US internet spy programme? I assume so and perhaps they hit upon some useful information in dealing with the complex terrorist threat. Maybe they did not stumble upon anything useful at all. Again I doubt if the governments co-ordinating and sharing such information have the time or inclination to target innocent people in the UK who are as free now to speak, travel, protest, join political parties as they have been at any time.

The tragedy is that so few make the most of the freedoms, not that the liberties are being constrained. Most UK voters seem more bothered about who wins The X Factor or the fate of the England football team than becoming politically active. This is the bigger cause for concern, indifference to making the most of unfettered freedoms.

Apathy in the UK and probably the US is also the main explanation for the paranoia about the state. The biggest surprise arising from the WikiLeaks eruption of secret documents was how much we already knew, or could have discerned, from publicly available documents and speeches. This is nearly always the case, even in relation to the most explosively sensitive episodes. What was most distinctive about the deluge of programmes and articles marking the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war was how much was already in the public domain, and had been at the time as the US and UK governments moved towards the calamitous invasion.

Similarly, when former ministers in the UK publish their memoirs, newspapers struggle to find sensational revelations. We knew them all already. One of the more innovative experiments initiated by the current Government is to encourage or compel greater transparency online from publicly-funded institutions in relation to their spending decisions. When I was a journalist in the mid-1980s my local council often met in private. Now it is possible to track online the key spending decisions of some councils and what happens once the money is allocated.

In each of these cases and many others few voters bother to follow such matters. It is much easier and less time-consuming to assume everything is sinister and secret rather than reaching the more brutal conclusion that “We don’t know very much largely because we can’t be bothered to find out”. In fact, so much is known that governing in relatively robust democracies is increasingly challenging. Freedom of Information is another of the many relatively recent changes in the UK that makes us more aware of what is going on. Conversely the barriers constraining intelligence agencies are still high. The Liberal Democrats have blocked the Communications Data Bill, proposals that were quickly re-named the snooper’s charter by those too quick to assume sinister intent, or at the very least dangerous unintended consequences. Yet as we all know, the communications revolution is the phenomenon of our age, the theme of many a conversation on the rare occasion when people actually meet rather than communicate on the internet: “Was it only 20 years ago we had no emails and mobile phones weighed a ton if you were lucky enough to have one?”

I have no idea how potential or actual terrorists plot their moves but assume they make the most of the communications’ revolution to do so. Those assigned the daunting task of preventing such plots from succeeding are forced to act as if no such revolution has happened. As Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, warned recently, technological advances “are reducing the communications data we have had available under the current legislative framework”. It seems sensible and logical to update the framework to take into account such advances.

Here is the deal that we have all implicitly signed up to. The internet provides us with limitless life-enhancing tools, but it is not a private place. Its astonishing development means if we choose to do so we can know far more about what is happening to us. In 1970 the late Peter Jenkins, the brilliant political journalist, argued the columnist’s art was to make sense of the “torrent of information” that whirled around us each day, to detect the patterns by sifting the mountain of material. He was writing in an era with no internet, no Twitter and no rolling television news. He offers a powerful definition of the columnist’s role not least because the torrent has intensified beyond recognition. 

As a result of the communications’ revolution we can know more about what governments in democracies are up to. In this entirely new context, democratic governments must have the means to find out more about what potential terrorists are up to too.

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