The Browsing of Others

Ian Fleming and other authors who elevated espionage into a world of glamour and glitz knew little of the sordid reality of secret police like the East German Stasi.

At its height, the Stasi embroiled as much as 2.5% of the adult population, rising to 2 spies for every 13 adults when part-time informants were included. As vividly depicted in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s movie “The Lives of Others” (2006), its agents even stole dirty underwear to compile an olfactory library for their sniffer dogs.

I suppose the country that developed methodical spying, with Sir Francis Walsingham in the 16th century, deserves to be among the leaders in electronic espionage. Just when you thought that the Internet brought liberation and freedom, you discover that all your transactions and connections are being logged, and maybe someone at GCHQ will be sat there raking through your information just like Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler.

It would be naive to think that such in-state espionage is directed at the current and long-lasting boojum of the ‘war against terror’. Information specifically about electronic surveillance is hard to come by, but in their latest annual report the Surveillance Commissioners (an Orwellian phenomenon in their own right) admit that anti-terrorism is the reason given for but a tiny minority of covert surveillance operations in the UK. The great majority of operations are in fact to investigate drug trafficking.

The same is true for the interception of communications, which oddly is dealt with by a separate Interception of Communications Commissioner, whose latest report reveals that more than two-thirds of authorised interceptions were because of serious crime other than ‘national security’.

Should we therefore be surprised at reports of apparently ordinary people being arrested inappropriately or improperly as the result of surveillance operations?

These include someone arrested as the organiser of a paedophile ring following a botched IP address trace, who proved entirely innocent. The Interception of Communications Commissioner reported that 17% of the 60 reported interception errors in 2014 were the result of ‘incorrect communications address’, and 21 errors “resulted in action being taken against the wrong individual in 12 instances”.

Whilst fly-tipping is an offence against the environment, and a serious social nuisance, does it really warrant the interception of communications to bring offenders to court, as has been used recently?

During the Cold War, in which the West allegedly triumphed over Stasi Captains like Wiesler, we liked to tell the Communist Bloc that we were the Free World – where the Beatles rose to fame from nothing, ‘underground’ magazines like Oz flourished freely, and anyone could wax political from their soap-box at Hyde Park Corner.

Now, despite portraying the Taliban and ISIS as ultra-conservative despots, we have become the most monitored society in our history, streets bristling with CCTV cameras, ISPs diligently storing all your last year’s connection details, and more.

There is the school of thought that such powers will not be abused when overseen by upright members of society such as the judiciary, who have been duly employed in offices such as the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and no less than seven Surveillance Commissioners.

It worries me that so many different agencies now have access to the tools of espionage that previously were the preserve of the police and security services. Not only are over 450 local authorities registered to obtain communications information, but so are an additional 100 or so other public bodies, such as the Charity Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.

The figures for interception of communications are also staggeringly large: in each of the last three years, there have been more than half a million authorisations and notices under the RIPA law, although these include multiple requests for the same individuals. However the Interception of Communications Commissioner stated that it is “not possible to report the number of individuals” to whom those relate, which in itself confirms that no-one is worried how many are being subjected to surveillance.

We currently have the bizarre situation that the majority of organisations involved in investigating potential crimes are not police forces. It will not, though, come as a surprise that one sector of society is sufficiently privileged to escape this interception of communications: members of the Houses of Commons and Lords. This is presumably to ensure that our esteemed MPs cannot be overheard when organising their next spree on expenses, or engineering the next legislative tool for surveillance.

So if you are still out there, Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, don’t lose hope in these tough times. I am sure that we could find you a good and satisfying job here in the UK.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 25 issue 20, 2009. Although I have updated the figures to reflect the most recent data, we are only too painfully aware of the continuing drive to increase powers of surveillance – once again in the name of the ‘war on terror’. Just don’t let the electorate know that precious little surveillance has anything to do with that.