In the maelstrom of accusations, opinions and spin whirling around the PRISM revelations, there’s one statement that stands out as particularly chilling.
US President Barack Obama said:
You can’t have 100% security and also have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a government.
Implicit in that statement is a breathtaking lie.
You may have noticed that we don’t have 100% security. The Boston bombings proved that. But that isn’t the implied lie.
The fact is, you can’t have 100% security. It’s demonstrably impossible. And if someone like President Obama is suggesting that we must continue to give up fundamental civil liberties until we achieve that aim, then that worries me greatly.
Someone in his position must know that perfect security is unattainable. Using that goal as the basis for government decision-making is not only fundamentally flawed, it’s dangerous – and dishonest.
We don’t yet know the truth about PRISM, or even anything approaching the truth. We do have an endless stream of pundits, including tech journalists, stating quite categorically (and often with more than a whiff of self-importance as they imply they know something you don’t) that the allegations are true or not true. The US authorities, of course, are keen to insist that everything that’s being done is within the law and under Congressional scrutiny – which actually raises more questions than it answers. And yet another part of the community is quite convinced that, yes, the NSA is hoovering up the world’s communications, which makes PRISM a kind of Son of Echelon.
Strangely, I care less about what PRISM actually does than about people’s reactions to it.
People put in positions of privileged knowledge and power are prone to developing a peculiar form of self-righteousness. And we’ve seen that expressed by representatives of both US and UK Governments. Their attitude boils down to: “You must trust us, we know what we’re doing, it’s in your best interest, don’t worry your pretty little heads about it”. They appear not to understand that trust must be earned. This patronising attitude doesn’t help and only adds to the conviction that these activities are undemocratic and out of control.
There’s also the attitude that such snooping is necessary to allow intelligence and police forces to do their jobs effectively. National security is a tough job, we’re constantly told.
Well good. Policing should be a tough job. The only place where policing is easy is in a police state.
Our Governments are trying to brush this aside by raising a false dichotomy. We don’t have to choose between security or transparency. It’s perfectly possible for intelligence agencies to do their secret jobs with full and largely transparent oversight.
And there’s one other aspect of this whole farrago I find distasteful. It seems that the chief concern of US politicians is to establish whether spying took place on US citizens. Implicit in that attitude is that the rest of the world can go hang, or that, perhaps, we foreigners are not to be trusted anyway, so it’s fine for the US to spy on us.