Saturday, 14 April 2012

Spying on the people

After a serious backlash in the media and from the general public, the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government has stalled its plans to spy on us.

However, Home Secretary Theresa May is still fully committed to introducing amendments to communications laws that will allow the state to monitor our phone calls, e-mails, activities on social networking sites like Facebook, and which websites we visit.  The likelihood, therefore, is that the proposed changes will happen, eventually. 

Newspaper headlines warned the government’s plans would put us on a par with ‘secretive’ states such as China and Iran, but what they didn’t say was that, in the UK, we are already one of the most spied-upon peoples in the world.

Already the state, which includes the secret service, the police, government departments and even local councils, can apply for a warrant to listen to our phone calls.  Already there is a ‘listening station’ at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, where sophisticated computers monitor every piece of electronic communications in the UK – that’s our e-mails, Facebook messages, Twitter posts and so on.  Officially Menwith Hill is an RAF base, but the majority of staff are US services personnel and the destination of the information collected is Langley, Virginia in the USA, home of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): it is then shared with the secret services of the UK, Canada and Australia.

The way Menwith Hill operates is that every phone call, e-mail and electronic message is scanned by computer software designed to recognise specific words or their sound.  If such words are detected, the communication is set aside and a member of staff will listen to the call or read the e-mail.  If they decide it could be suspicious, further investigations and monitoring are carried out.

With all of this already happening, you might wonder why the UK Government wants to change the law.  Well, it certainly isn’t to give us more privacy.  Those who already listen to our private conversations and read our e-mails want to do away with the requirement placed on them to secure a warrant before they target specific individuals.  What they want is to be able to monitor us on demand and in real time.  In other words, those who already have the right to spy on us want to do it as and when they please.

Bear in mind that Menwith Hill already monitors our calls and e-mails, but the trigger words that lead to further investigation mostly relate to possible involvement in serious crimes, such as terrorism.  What the UK Government wants to do is bring snooping down to much lower levels of possible infringements. 

Local Councils already have powers to monitor calls and other communications, if they believe someone may be committing a crime.  North Ayrshire Council has used these powers in the past.  The UK Government’s planned amendments to communications laws could lead to a situation where Councils would no longer require a warrant to carry out surveillance.

Of course, in attempting to justify their proposals, Tories and other right-wingers trot-out the old chestnut that ‘If you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear’.  The problem with that, though, is people suspected of even relatively minor infringements could find their personal phone calls and e-mails being read by some faceless bureaucrat, even if the suspicion has been generated by an anonymous,  baseless and malicious ‘tip-off’.

We have already seen and been appalled by the level to which some newspapers stooped in gathering information by listening to voicemail messages and hacking e-mail accounts.  Why should we be any less appalled if such practices are carried out against us by servants of the state?

What should worry us more is the ‘below-the-radar’ surveillance.  The ‘legitimate’ snooping currently carried out does ultimately have a paper trail.  Someone, somewhere, at least in theory, can be held to account for it.  However, that isn’t the case with all spying, even when carried out on behalf of state agencies.

The British State spies on anyone considered to be a ‘threat to the realm’.  Into that category falls legitimate political parties and activist groups: it was recently exposed that a police officer had been undercover with an environmental group for seven years.

We now know that MI5 has, for many years, infiltrated trade unions and political parties of the left.  In Scotland we have the added factor of pro-independence parties and organisations.  Even the SNP, which forms the current government of Scotland, will have members who are actually serving officers of the British secret service, and I know who my money is on.  From a British establishment point of view, MI5 would not be doing its job properly if pro-independence groups, particularly left-wing pro-independence groups like the Scottish Socialist Party, were not monitored and spied upon.  After all, the SSP seeks to end the vested interests of a small, ruling elite that has built massive wealth by exploiting the ordinary people and natural resources of Scotland.

The British State already spies on legitimate political groups: the secret service, government departments and Councils already have the power to monitor our phone calls: Menwith Hill already checks every call, e-mail and Facebook message.  So when the government proposes granting even more powers to the snoopers, we should be concerned.  Even if we have done nothing wrong, we should be concerned.

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