‘Mass surveillance’: a top spook is allowed an intelligent and revealing say, at last

With the apparent arrival of see-through spying, can transparent black ops be far behind? - 'Cluff' for Private Eye

With the apparent arrival of see-through spying, can transparent black ops be far behind?
– ‘Cluff’ for Private Eye

As this is not really a personal blog, let us say simply that, for the second December in a row, we find ourselves grieving. Two losses. Two who could not be closer to us: she, just after Christmas, last year; he, last week.

He could be morose and rage like thunder, yes. But laughter was what came to him most naturally. He would have loved this enlargement of a drawing at the bottom of an inside page of a recent Private Eye that there was no time to send him. For weeks, we’d been discussing — in wondering tones — exactly how the spies of Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA were going to do their jobs ‘transparently’ with members of the judiciary and politicians breathing hotly down their backs.

He, with an insider’s knowledge of these things – in another part of the world – would have warmly endorsed points made by a former top spy in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks. David Omand is the one truly thoughtful debater who, as far as we have noticed, has been given a chance to make the case for the other side of government data-gathering about ordinary citizens to a politically liberal audience. We have not seen his reflections given any space in the newspapers**, but paid close attention to what he said at a forum organised by the Labour Campaign for Human Rights – ‘GCHQ and the fight against terrorism: did UK surveillance go too far?’ — where the speakers included the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Here was an event that made us think — at long last, balance.

Not as an endorsement, just good food for thought, an extract from live reporting of the event by a Guardian reporter — part of David Omand’s contribution to the conversation at the Houses of Parliament on 17 December:

7.14pm GMT Sir David Omand, the former head of GCHQ, speaks next.

He is speaking on his own behalf, he says.

He says these revelations would not have come as a shock if the Guardian had done more homework – “there are books written about all this stuff”. There is a lot of “synthetic shock horror”, he says.

7.17pm GMT There is increasing demand for more data about criminals from law enforcement, Omand says.

Supplying those demands is driven by the ever-improving electronic communications devices.

The ethical constraints are the third key force here, he says. It is our legitimate concern for privacy that constrains how such data is used.

We should be looking for a point of stable equilibrium between these three forces, he says.

Much of what has been reported about what Snowden stole has been misleading, he says.

A “major category error” runs through the Guardian’s reporting, he says. It is journalistic sleight of hand to confuse access to fibre-optic cables with mass surveillance. “We are not actually subject to mass surveillance in this country”, but we are “blessed” with an intelligence community that has “bulk access” – but that is different, he says.

7.23pm GMT

He has seven points to make.

He believes in human rights and the privacy of family life.

But also of protecting the weak from those who would harm them.

For a long time we have sanctioned intrusion by law, he says. The European convention on human rights states that states have the right to protect their citizens, but there has to be oversight and investigation of abuse, and redress if abuse is found.

The scale of change needed to deal with the internet by law enforcement today needs to be recognised, he says. It is the medium of choice for enemies of society because it offers multiple means of hiding your identity, Omand says. Complete anonymity is not desirable and should not be a policy goal, he says.

The security services should be able to find and access the communications of those who mean to do us harm, he says. You need powerful tools for that, and that’s where bulk access comes in, and if you don’t allow the services those tools, you won’t be able to stop the terrorists.

You should be proud that in this country we have people of the skills and dedication to be able to do this, he says.

Oversight and regulation and judicial determination that the actions are lawful are also necessary.

In this security space it would be absurdly self-defeating to inform suspects they were under surveillance or tell them how they were. So the authorities cannot be transparent – “they can however be much more open about the purposes of this activity and the nature of the work that is being done”, he says.

You don’t need to read the Guardian to find out about this – it was already out there. For some reasons government was reticent about giving a full account, he says.

So the ISC [ the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament ] will have to continue to have private sessions, he says.

7.26pm GMT


If you follow those seven steps you end up with a sensible agenda for change, Omand says.


Speaking personally, he says he didn’t devote most of his working life to fighting the cold war in order to introduce new totalitarianism, all-knowing mass surveillance.

** A quick post-posting check shows that he was permitted to contribute an opinion piece about the Snowden leaks on the Guardian site in September — but with low reader interest guaranteed by its placing in the Comment-is-Free section with commenting turned off. Erm — well, yes.