Excerpts from a very long read in The Guardian, The Snowden files: why the British public should be worried about GCHQ:
In the UK there has been an extraordinary disconnect between the scale and seriousness of what Snowden has revealed, and the scale and seriousness of the response. One of the main reasons for that, I think, is that while some countries are interested in rights, in Britain we are more focused on wrongs.
In Europe and the US, the lines between the citizen and the state are based on an abstract conception of the individual’s rights, which is then framed in terms of what the state needs to do.
That’s not the case in Britain: although we do have rights, they were arrived at by specific malfeasances and disasters on the part of the state.
Every right that limits the behaviour of the police, from the need for search warrants to the (now heavily qualified) right to silence to habeas corpus itself, comes from the fact that the authorities abused their powers.
This helps to explain why Snowden’s revelations, perceived as explosive in American and Europe by both the political right and left, have been greeted here with a weirdly echoing non-response. In the rights-based tradition, the flagrant abuse of individual privacy is self-evidently a bad thing, a (literally) warrantless extension of the power of the state.
Here in the UK, because we’ve been given no specific instances of specific wrongs having been committed, the story has found it hard to gain traction. Even if there were such instances – just as there were 2,776 rule violations by the NSA last year alone – we wouldn’t know anything about them, because the system of judicial inspections at GCHQ is secret.
So it is a perfectly sealed mechanism: we aren’t interested in rights in the abstract, and we are prevented by law from hearing about any of the specific abuses which might start to focus our attention.
It is repeatedly stated that “GCHQ operates within the law” and that “GCHQ does it legally” and that surveillance always has to be “justified, necessary and proportionate”. Good – it would be terrifying if that weren’t the case. But if GCHQ seldom breaks the law, it’s because the law is so broadly drafted and interpreted it’s almost impossible to break. …
For instance, a legal briefing on the Human Rights Act lists the instances in which it is legal for the state to breach article 8: “In the interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” …
The totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would need no broader legal justification than that: it really does allow a government to do anything it likes. It was at this point that I became convinced that Snowden’s revelations are not just interesting or important but vital, because the state is about to get powers that no state has ever had, and we need to have a public debate about those powers and what their limits are to be.
At a moment of austerity and with a general sense that our state’s ability to guarantee prosperity for its citizens is in retreat, that same state is about to make the biggest advance ever in its security powers. In public, the state is shrinking; in private, it is shrinking until it gets just small enough to fit into our phones, our computers, our cars, our fridges, our bedrooms, our thoughts and intentions.
Since 9/11, 53 people have been killed by terrorists in the UK. Every one of those deaths is tragic. So is every one of the 26,805 deaths to have occurred on Britain’s roads between 2002 and 2012 inclusive, an average of 6.67 deaths a day. Let’s call that the SDRD, standard daily road deaths. The terrorist toll for 12 years comes to 0.0121 SDRD. This means that 12 years of terrorism has killed as many people in the UK as eight days on our roads.
People misunderstand what a police state is. It isn’t a country where the police strut around in jackboots; it’s a country where the police can do anything they like. Similarly, a security state is one in which the security establishment can do anything it likes.
We are right on the verge of being an entirely new kind of human society, one involving an unprecedented penetration by the state into areas which have always been regarded as private. Do we agree to that? If we don’t, this is the last chance to stop it happening. Our rulers will say what all rulers everywhere have always said: that their intentions are good, and we can trust them. They want that to be a sufficient guarantee.