Earlier this week the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee described the advent of the Prism system of Internet surveillance as; “deeply concerning, and an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society.”
The Prism online surveillance subject bought to light by former CIA employee Edward Snowden once again highlights the blurred boundaries between maintaining collective public safety, and state encroachment on individual civil liberties; be they online or physical.
It could be argued that the spies are doing only what they always have and only what is necessary. Al-Qaeda’s assaults on September 11th 2001 demonstrated to politicians everywhere that their first duty is to ensure their own citizens’ safety—a lesson reinforced recently by the attack on the Boston marathon in April and last month’s gruesome murder of British soldier, Drummer Lee Rigby in London.
With cyber and physical terrorism apparently on the rise, there is a compelling case for using electronic surveillance especially with cyber criminals proving increasingly hard for Western security services to penetrate as a direct use of mobile phones and the internet.
The issue of sweeping up information about society has been modestly reported; compared with the wars launched against Afghanistan and Iraq, and the public seems happy enough for the moment. If there was another attack such as 9/11 or 7/7, Mr Snowden and the whole information security issue would soon be forgotten.
Because spies choose what to reveal about their work, nobody can really judge if the cost and intrusion of the security services are proportionate to the threat. One concern is the size, scope and cost of the security bureaucracy: some 1.4m people have top secret clearances of the kind held by Mr Snowden. The question remains, is this sensible? Surely the Wiki Leaks saga exposed the inherent weaknesses in the system?
Spooks do need secrecy, but not on everything, always and everywhere. Officials will complain that disclosure would hinder their efforts in what is already an unfair fight and with the world becoming increasingly digital this is simply a logical progression.
Yet surely some operational efficiency is worth sacrificing, because public scrutiny is a necessary condition for popular backing. Even allowing for the need to keep some things clandestine, societies around the globe (online and physical) need a clearer idea of what their spies are doing in their name, both in the field and online.