Max Hastings apparently 'trusts our spies more than apologists for treachery'. Which, of course, is stupid.
Implicitly trusting people who deceive for a living is idiotic, even if they are ‘on our side’, and the choice isn’t really that simple a dichotomy. The issue at hand, raised by the Investigatory Powers bill that the Government will publish on Wednesday (with most of the elements that had it dubbed the ‘snoopers’ charter’ still intact), is not choosing between a) allowing our perfectly trustworthy spies to do what they want or b) rolling out the red carpet to Al Qaeda, handing out pipe bombs as they stroll into Britain.
It’s about privacy, about giving too much power to fallible human beings, and it’s about trust. Opponents of the bill want significantly more oversight, ideally by courts, over the powers granted to those who spy on us. Proponents like Hastings think that’s silly.
Here are seven terrible arguments you may hear about this bill soon, and some critical thoughts on them.
1. You can trust spies
What part of ‘these people deceive for a living’ do you not understand? More importantly, what planet have you been living on? The revelations of Edward Snowden have taught us that security agencies have been lying to citizens, with the help of governments, for ages. Any Christian knows that every human being is capable of, if not prone to, sin. Just trusting people to do the right thing is admirable. But then why have rules for police and how they treat suspects in custody? Why have laws at all? Most of us will probably do the right thing, right? No? Then why would spies be any different?
2. Okay, fine, you commie, you can trust our spies
Thinking that it’s just the CIA and NSA that do bad things is so naïve it’s almost sweet. It’s not sweet. But almost. Unless you’re a racist, believing that British spies are more moral, more ethical or more trustworthy than any others is obviously a few hostages short of a successful night at Checkpoint Charlie.
3. Opponents of the bill are in favour of terrorism
Yes. We all want to be blown up. We loooove civilian casualties. We are big fans of death and destruction. That’s why we campaign against the violation of privacy. Because that’s upsetting, murder isn’t. Wait. That’s absolutely ridiculous. What we are in favour of is keeping the power of government in check. Oddly, some right wingers who support snooping legislation will be the first to say that ‘big government’ is a bad thing and suggest that the government should get out of broadcasting, healthcare and welfare. And yet, when it comes to having so much information about all of us that they have immeasurable power, unimagined in previous generations, these government-haters shrug and say ‘aw, shucks, they mean no harm.’
4. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear
Cool. I am going to publish your web browsing history. On Facebook. On this site. Not a worry? Okay. Get undressed. In front of your webcam. I’m controlling it. Or, actually, take the doors off your toilets, your bedrooms. Let me publish every email and text you send. See, even if you’re a good person who never does anything to be ashamed of in private (congrats, by the way), there are still aspects of your life you would like to keep private. That does not make you a freedom-hating monster, regardless of what Hastings and his ilk say. It means you’re uncomfortable with invasion of privacy, like the author of the latest cover story for The Atlantic, a conservative American magazine.
And hey, Christians, are you really that confident that the government of our nation will always be just, trustworthy and 100% non-oppressive? Of course you are. No British Christians worry about persecution. But if any of us did, would we prefer a government with almost unlimited power stemming from unlimited surveillance? Or maybe some limits? Just in case?
5. Our snoopers need more powers
The reason we know this is because the head of MI5 went on the radio the other day and said so. And why would anyone lie or exaggerate in order to get more power, more budget allocation, more freedom to do what they like?! It just doesn’t make sense!
The argument is made that the only reason we haven’t had another 7/7 is because of our spies. Cool. So far, so effective. But then why do they need new powers? New technologies to recruit jihadis? ISIS is literally using Facebook. Twitter. Plus, like Al Qaeda, ISIS is an idea. It doesn’t require a hierarchical decision-making process to commit acts of terror. Just individuals who believe in a really quite simple cause, being given reasons to hate the West.
6. But Google and Facebook already know most of this stuff
Yeah, that’s not better. Also: my doctor sees me naked, my therapist knows my psyche and my weightloss group leader knows how heavy I am. I’m okay with that. I chose that. I’m less okay with showing you my junk, telling you my weird dreams about Zayn from One Direction or having you call me fatty. Because privacy is about choice. Is it great that private companies spy on us? No. It’s also not great that people are rude to us in traffic. That doesn’t mean I want David Cameron or George Osborne flipping me the bird and shouting obscenities at me.
7. Judicial oversight is unnecessary
Except it isn’t. Not when what’s being discussed is an invasion of privacy, a violation of what would ordinarily be inalienable rights. To suggest that spies should be self-regulating not only misses a basic fact of human fallibility and ignores the recent history of spies being involved in torture and law breaking (if not in the UK, then abroad), but it also misses the point of courts. We don’t have courts, judges, lawyers and juries because we don’t trust the police. We have them because just taking a police officer’s word that you are guilty opens the door to profound abuse of power. Similarly, spies that have to make their case for surveillance may at least be held in check by such oversight.
Knowledge is power. Information is power. Surveillance is power. No matter how much it is couched in obfuscations about metadata or justifications about safety, no matter how much we’re told not trusting people who lie for a living is paranoid, these facts remain. And every one of us should worry about that level of power being held by people who, by necessity, must do their work in secret.
Dark things happen that way.