I was sitting in the bath the other night when I was surprised to see a periscope rise out of the water at my feet. A glassy eye in the lens fixed on me while I attempted to preserve some dignity with my flannel.
'Do not be alarmed,' said the periscope.
'Why not?' I asked. 'You're in my bath.'
'Just routine government surveillance,' the periscope assured me. 'We do it to everyone. If you're innocent, you've nothing to fear.'
The NSA and GCHQ have been hoovering up our online lives. They record our browsing, copy our email, record us on Skype. They know who we have been speaking to on the phone, when and where. They have taps on the entire phone system. They have their own personal doors to the servers of Google, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook and every major online service you can think of and they have keys to the encryption that is supposed to keep our online lives secure. They can map our associations and essentially with all this data look inside your head.
The image of the periscope in the bath is not so fanciful: the cyber-spooks of the NSA and GCHQ can hack and access the webcams on our personal computers, enabling them to peer directly into our homes.
This is a surveillance infrastructure created in democratic countries that would have the most tyrannical dictator drooling and reaching for his (presumably debugged) box of tissues.
State surveillance is as old as states, of course. It is not a new phenomenon that sprang up unexpectedly with the advent of digital technology.
The FBI, for example, has a long history of watching both Americans and non-Americans. Their COINTELPRO programme through the 50s, 60s and 70s (matched by the NSA's Project Minaret) kept watch on and infiltrated domestic organisations opposed to the Vietnam war or promoting civil rights. Martin Luther King was the subject of their attentions, as was that dangerous subversive John Lennon. In Britain, the police and MI5 have long paralleled their US counterparts, directing their attentions at peace campaigners and animal rights groups.
Happily, because we are innocent, we have nothing to fear.
This state apparatus of peeking and prying is there for our own good. It is there to protect us from terrorists, bogeymen, assorted sociopaths and foreign powers that don't appreciate our love of freedom, democracy, and privacy.
There is absolutely no way this system could be abused by individuals. There is no way the data could be used to interfere with free discourse or democratic protest or free speech. There is no way this data could find its way into the hands of big businesses who may use it to create, say, blacklists of workers. It could not be used against people who have grievances against the authorities. There is no way the system could be abused by the system.
If you are innocent, they intone, you have nothing to fear.
And yet, this has never been true. It's a convenient myth. It's a mantra for those who want to sound a little less dismissive than putting their fingers in their ears and singing la la la la la! in a big voice.
The mission of state surveillance has always crept into the darker realms of pushing the interests of both the state and its corporate sponsors. America's COINTELPRO and Minaret programmes actively attempted to interfere with and discredit the groups they were watching, groups that wanted nothing less innocent than equal rights between races and an end to America's involvement in foreign wars. Their activities drifted from nominal counter intelligence to control and manipulation and veered into the illegal.
In Britain, the surveillance of peace groups such as CND led to burglary of homes and offices associated with the movement and its members.
More recently, undercover British police infiltrating animal rights groups — not terrorist cells, but animal rights groups — established relationships and fathered children with activists, only to disappear when the plug was pulled on the operation, leaving mothers single and children without fathers. But being innocent, these women, presumably, had nothing to fear. (One wonders whether the CPA is pursuing these police officers for maintenance backdated to the time of their disappearance.)
And because sexual relationships between undercover police and the people they were spying on were forged under false pretences, they could (and should) be considered rape.
Did it matter that the duped individuals were innocent?
The police activity didn't stop at siring children. They apparently acted as agents provocateurs. A police agent planted a bomb that exploded in Debenhams on Oxford street. The famous anti-McDonald's screed that provoked the longest and most costly libel trial in British history was apparently part-written by an undercover police officer.
The family of Stephen Lawrence campaigning for justice over their son's death after police mishandled the case became subjects of surveillance, the police apparently looking for opportunities to discredit them. The crime of the Lawrence family? Questioning the police.
And neither would the state misuse data collected through surveillance. Unless you count the recent revelations that information collected on individuals through spying on trade unions was diverted to [check] a company that maintained employment blacklists on behalf of the private construction industry.
Despite this surveillance apparatus being here for our own good, despite its essentially benevolent purpose, it is cloaked like a Klingon warship. In fact, had Edward Snowden not blown the whistle, we might not have known about Prism or Tempora or how online encryption has been breached.
But not to worry. Just keep reminding ourselves that if we are innocent, we have nothing to fear.
David Miranda passing through Heathrow from a meeting in Germany on his way to Brazil was detained by British security officials. He was questioned and all his electronic devices from his phone to his laptop to his game consol were confiscated. He was detained under the UK's anti-terrorism laws, another instrument of potentially draconian power we need not fear if we are innocent. Miranda's connection with terrorism? None. None whatsoever. His detention derived solely from the fact that he is the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, through whom Edward Snowden's revelations came to the world.
Meanwhile, in a scene reminiscent of a cold war drama, the offices of the Guardian were visited by British spooks who insisted on physically destroying at least one computer hard drive. The Guardian's crime? Publishing the revelations of Edward Snowden.
Secrecy laws so secret none of us knew they existed prevent service providers from telling their users that state agencies are rifling their personal information. The owner of Edward's Snowden's preferred email service shut up shop rather than have the spooks stick their snoots in his servers while he was unable to tell the world about it.
If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear. But how do I know whether I am innocent? Who decides? Under the baleful eye of the state security apparatus, being innocent has never been enough to guarantee your innocence. Indeed, it is the nature of this regimen of surveillance, where everyone is spied upon, that no one is presumed innocent.
None of the above examples of abuse listed above (far from a definitive list) are attributed to Prism or Tempora or the other schemes revealed by Edward Snowden, but it is naïve to believe, that fitted with the most sophisticated and complete apparatus the world has ever seen to stick their noses in, they will resist the temptation to stick other things in as well..
Meanwhile, back in the bathtub clutching our flannel to our dignity under the baleful eye of the state security apparatus, our innocence and having nothing to fear is just not the point.
Un-Tall Tales site