The Investigatory Powers Bill – AKA the "Snooper's Charter" – is currently working its way through Parliament and according to Edward Snowden, the former intelligence analyst who famously blew the whistle on illegal government surveillance programmes, it will give Britain "the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West".
He's not wrong. If this bill becomes law, the security services get everything: our phones, our computers, our emails, our messages, and our browsing habits – in short, our whole lives.
Obviously a lot of people, from civil liberties campaigners to Million Mask Marchers, are very concerned about this. But reading the debate, I couldn't help but think that one voice was lacking – that of the kind of people who might have to spend hours trawling through hundreds of pages of inane Facebook chats and tedious work emails, on the off chance that they might find some evidence of an atrocity being planned – spies.
Should we be scared of them? I contacted a couple of ex-spooks – Ruth*, a recently retired agent, and Annie Machon, a former MI5 intelligence officer turned whistle blower – to find out.
VICE: Hello Ruth, what can you tell us about your work for the intelligence agencies?
Ruth: I worked officially for the foreign office, but I spent time seconded to what's loosely described as MI5 and MI6. My job was operational counter-intelligence. I don't really want to go into much more detail than that.
Okay. What do you make of the Investigatory Powers Bill?
The first thing is to recognise that there have been huge steps forward in the last 20-30 years. The intelligence and security services are now both out in the open. Their existence is formally acknowledged. Previously they weren't. Everybody knows where they're based. You can Google who the director general of the Security Service is, who runs GCHQ, and who runs the Secret Intelligence Service. That much is out in the open. There have been previous statutes on the books – RIPA and TACT – so there's been a certain amount of stuff that's out in the open already, which is kind of a good thing.
The second thing to do is to ask a really basic question – is there a real threat? Is this the government wanting to snoop into everything we do, or is this a reaction – possibly an over-reaction – to a genuine threat?
What do you think?
I've sat down opposite people whose one desire in life is to blow themselves up and kill as many people as possible. There really are people out there who want to bring down airplanes, cause death destruction and mayhem. The threat is real.
It's not just Islamic terrorism. There are still dissident republicans, there is a general rise, not just in Europe but in the US as well, of right-wing extremists, like Anders Breivik in Norway. We tend to get fixated on the Islamic side but the powers that the government are looking at are directed against all forms of terrorism, and all forms of behaviour that are going to encourage or incite people to violence.
Isn't there a risk that anyone who disagrees with the status quo could become a target?
People get a really false sense of their own importance or significance. Everybody thinks, "oh they're going to be after me!" No, they're not. They couldn't give a toss. What they're after is somebody who is actively planning to kill people.
There are finite resources. We were stretched. It wasn't unusual to do 20-hour days. You talk about junior doctors. Well – junior spies work bloody hard too! GCHQ have the resources to hoover up vast amounts of data. But then sifting through it... You've got to concentrate your resources.
So, what sorts of people might be snooping through our emails?
Next time you're in a tube carriage, just look around you. That's what you would see in the services: a cross section of ordinary people. They're mums, dads, brothers, sisters. They fall in love, fall out of love, shag, drink, go on holiday, exactly the same as everybody else. What you can't say is that they're all white, middle class, public school, Oxbridge. That's not true. Nor can you say they all vote Tory. You will get exactly the same cross section of political views, sexual orientation, as you would in the rest of society.
Oh. I guess that's OK then.
What is it that people are getting upset about? It's the collection of data by the government? Look at what Google's doing. Yahoo. Facebook. They're doing it for financial and commercial gain. What the government is saying is, we're going to do some of this stuff, but we're going to do it because we think it's going to make you safer. The government isn't interested in you unless you're doing something really bad. 99.99 percent of the population are of no interest.
Hi Annie, how worried should the average British citizen be about the Investigatory Powers Bill?
Annie Machon, MI5 whistle blower: We know from history that if governments have too many powers to survey their citizens, the citizens will start to self-censor what they do: be it what they read, what they say, their relationships, their activism or the politics that they will get involved in. We certainly saw that under the Stasi in East Germany. What we are seeing now is that we live our lives increasingly online and everything is therefore scooped up and kept. Whether or not it's immediately viewed – it's kept. And so we will start to self-censor. It's very much a slide towards totalitarianism.
But won't we be safer from terrorists and paedophiles in a totalitarian state?
I would say that the best way to investigate those people – and of course there are some very dangerous people out there – is proper, targeted investigation, which has always been the best way, particularly when you're investigating terrorists, to stop them carrying out atrocities. Rather than this dragnet surveillance which captures everything from everybody across a whole country, and then they lose the actual information that they need to act on – like with the murderers of Lee Rigby for instance. Those people were well known to the spies, but because they're drowning in all this data, they're actually guarding our national security less effectively.
So more security doesn't actually make us more secure.
Absolutely. And the more security you have, the more difficult it becomes to push back against the state, which could slide increasingly into totalitarianism. Having the right to privacy is the last defence against that, so that we can take action.
What's different about these new proposals? Don't we already have one of the most far reaching and intrusive intelligence regimes in the world?
We do indeed have probably the least accountable and most legally protected intelligence infrastructure in the Western world. They operate effectively with no meaningful oversight and no proper means of ventilation. If you're a whistle-blower you go to prison and that's it. [The bill] is enshrining these powers, which they've already been abusing over the last decade at least.
People say that they don't mind if they hold their information for a couple of years. But you can't guarantee that they will destroy it after a certain amount of time. And of course you might be doing something now that is perfectly legal – like demonstrating. Fast-forward five years and the laws might have changed. They still have that evidence against you and they can prosecute you as an extremist or a terrorist.
What can we do to protect ourselves and others from the surveillance state?
Tech can be slightly difficult for most people, slightly threatening, so one of the easiest steps you can take is to find your closest crypto party, take a laptop along, and get tooled up with some privacy tools, which people will do for free. That would be the first step.
The second is: use open source software. Use encryption as standard with all your friends when you're emailing. Use TOR for web browsing. Use TAILS as an alternative setup. Use OTR – Off The Record – for chats. All of these things have been developed by the hacktivist community. They're not all 100 percent easy to use, but they're certainly not as difficult as they used to be a decade ago.
*"Ruth" is false name to protect the individual's identity.
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