Whether or not we are paranoid or delusion we are all subject to comprehensive, deeply penetrative, and highly technologically sophisticated surveillance by the state. In a sense Edward Snowden did not tell us anything in 2013 we did not already suspect. When I came to Ireland in the 1990s the British government signals intelligence (SIGINT) centre at Cheltenham in England, GCHQ, was already well known, and was popularly assumed to be listening into and recording all telecommunications in the Irish Republic. It was assumed that because of the conflict in the six counties between Irish Republicans and the British state it was only to be expected that British Intelligence would listening to Ireland. This presumption was well founded.
Snowden’s revelations merely opened our eyes to the scope of government mass surveillance. Irish communications were indeed being surveilled, and they may have been of special interest to British military intelligence, but Ireland was no more and no less subject to this routine surveillance than the rest of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.
Mass surveillance on this scale, which Snowden suggests was more comprehensive than that of the United States, predates the US-led War or Terror, and – considering its national territorial remit – cannot be thought of as relating primarily to counter-terrorism measures. British mass surveillance was surveillance for its own sake on its entire domestic population. By 2008, in light of the proliferation and scale of the internet, the UK intelligence services developed Tempora, a system used to buffer online communications extracted from fibre-optic cables. Its purpose was two-fold; mastering the internet (MTI) and global telecoms exploitation (GTE). It makes no distinction between innocent citizens and targeted individuals.
Tempora and the United States’ equivalent, PRISM, are designed to mass harvest electronic data indiscriminately, storing information on millions of internet users. This information is fully integrated into national grid visual and audio surveillance systems, the traditional CCTV monitoring networks and telephone and radio communications. All of which conspires to give these state agencies unparalleled deep and individualised data on everyone “on the grid.”
There is of course the question of legality. Britain and the United States have laws limiting the collection and use of private data, usually making it illegal to harvest information without consent or warrant. Yet there are two ways in which the state and its intelligence community are able to circumvent these legal limitations; by a process of international collaboration and by exploiting states of exception.
International co-operation is not too difficult to understand. Both the US and the UK have been party to the UKUSA Agreement since the 1943 BRUSA Agreement, an agreement between the US and the UK on intelligence sharing. Since then this treaty has been expanded to include Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – thus the term “Five Eyes.” As it has been illegal in the past for the United Kingdom to surveil its own population, this task was outsourced to one of the other state intelligence agencies party to the treaty which, in turn, passed the information back.
Much of this changes with the introduction of emergency legislation, the introduction of legal states of exception intended to assist the state in dealing with serious threats to national security. When various easements are introduced to the standing legal apparatus the powers given to the state to surveil exceptions simply becomes the rule. As a consequence of the panic created by 9/11 many of the former restrictions on domestic surveillance have been lifted, giving states increased latitude for indiscriminate mass surveillance.
The dangers of this reality are obvious and have far reaching implications for civil and political rights and individual liberties. Governments will always use terrorism and crime to legitimise their surveillance programmes, but neither excuse stands up to scrutiny. In the case of violent crime, for example, cameras have next to no effect on crime reduction. CCTV can and does act as a recorded witness to crime and can be used to apprehend suspects and act as evidence in the criminal justice system. This is a good use for such technology, but it can only ever be an agent of retribution rather than a deterrent. Much the same can be said for terrorism. In the UK not one terror attack has been detected in advance by CCTV, and yet the UK has become the most video surveilled society on earth.