Watching the Watchmen

When I first joined MaidSafe I thought the company vision of ‘privacy, security, freedom’ was interesting, but maybe based on some kind of altruistic or philanthropic outlook. However, it has become apparent that this vision is sound business sense amongst the backdrop of ongoing revelations about the NSA and GCHQ.

The UK Government continues to suggest that considerable damage to our security is being caused by The Guardian newspaper publishing Edward Snowden’s leaked files. These statements were repeated earlier this week (3rd December) as the papers editor, Alan Rusbriger, was giving evidence before a parliamentary select committee.

However, Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) counters this view in his open letter to the Guardian Editor, confirming the notion that publishing the leaked files is unlikely to provide an advantage or be of any value to enemies of the state;

“Certainly terrorists are already aware that they are under extensive surveillance, and did not need Mr Snowden or the Guardian to tell them that.”

He goes onto suggest that it is the scale rather than the methods that were the real revelations of the Snowden files.

I believe, as do many others, that rather than weakening the UK, elements of the press are actually providing a vital public service, one that our oversight committees should be providing but seem reluctant to perform. It is clear that technological advancement has outpaced the law, however, it is inexcusable that the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), established specifically to;

‘…examine the policy, administration and expenditure of the Security Service, Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).’

seems to be asking no difficult or probing questions of our intelligence services. In fact, during their recent review with the ISC, the directors of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ were provided with the questions in advance, unlike Alan Rusbriger.

It is unsurprising that Government claims that appropriate checks are in place or ambiguous comments such as;

‘We have reviewed the reports that GCHQ produced on the basis of intelligence sought from the US, and we are satisfied that they conformed with GCHQ’s statutory duties. The legal authority for this is contained in the Intelligence Services Act 1994.’

do nothing to quell concerns that the ISC is asleep at the wheel.

It seems to be no different in the US, where they also seem to have lost control of their own counter intelligence agency, the NSA. Reports suggest the NSA are working under their own initiative, allegedly without the knowledge of their elected representatives.

So who is watching the watchmen?

It would appear at this point no one.

The cynics suggest that by attacking papers like the Guardian, the UK Government is attempting to shift focus away from the real issue, one of democratic accountability. As Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch states. “Spies spy, but they should not be able to write their own rules”.

The reality is that without whistleblowers and a free press, a complete lack of oversight would exist, allowing security agencies activities to go unmonitored and unchecked. This would significantly and negatively impact upon the privacy, security and freedom that we take (or was that took?) for granted.