The insistence of the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, that “law-abiding” people have no cause to worry about the activities of our intelligence services will not have reassured those concerned about civil liberties in the digital age.
What they, and many of us, find disturbing are reports that for years GCHQ has had access to the US spy programme known as Prism. The problem is not with the existence of Prism, which gives the FBI and the National Security Agency easy access to the world’s nine top internet companies. It is the suspicion that GCHQ is using the US internet-monitoring programme as a means to circumvent the restrictions imposed by British law on eavesdropping.
Worryingly, Mr Hague would neither confirm nor deny the claims about GCHQ’s access to the Prism programme, resorting to the opaque-sounding formula that most people have “nothing to fear” about it either way. To reveal the workings of the security services would be to defeat the object of ensuring our security, he maintained.
We have every reason to feel short-changed by that patronising, unforthcoming response. No one doubts that defeating increasingly inventive terrorists requires a technologically sophisticated response. Equally, the existence of real and repeated threats to democracy must not become a cover for the slow, steady subversion of those same democratic values. We should remember the precedent of the Napoleonic wars, when defence of the realm against the threat of French invasion became a catch-all excuse for the suspension of one hard-won freedom after another.
Civil liberties matter to this newspaper and we want a government that is keenly aware of the due limits of state intrusion into our lives, not a government that feels it has a right to decide whether we deserve being spied on or not. When Mr Hague addresses the Commons today on the question of the Prism allegations, we must hope that he casts more light on the subject than he has done so far.