abney and associates hong kong news,bringing internet snooping to book
Revelations that GCHQ and the NSA have tapped into the internet on a huge scale have rightly provoked outrage. But intelligence analysts aren't the only ones likely to be tempted by the captured information.
The internet has transformed our relationship with information – and with the world – in ways that continue to surprise us. That may appear to many readers, especially those below the age of thirty, as a statement of the blindingly obvious but I think it can bear repetition.
The latest evidence for the transformative power of the web comes from the explosion of outrage detonated by Edward Snowden's revelations that the NSA and GCHQ have been tapping into online activity on an unprecedented scale and with little apparent legal, congressional or parliamentary oversight.
The extent of the snooping, which has targeted friend and foe alike, has upset many. Our allies in Germany and France are furious; Noam Chomsky is alarmed; the founding fathers of the "land of the free" are reportedly spinning in their graves; and John Kampfner has sounded a grim warning about the further erosion of the West's moral authority over more draconian regimes. Even senior staff at MI5 think that GCHQ may have gone too far.
Among the general population the reaction appears more mixed. There is disquiet certainly but a significant fraction of the population - almost half in the US – has shrugged off the snooping. Perhaps primed by powerful fictional accounts of electronic espionage in TV shows such as Spooks or Homeland or the Bourne films, many of us have long presumed that we are under surveillance and so were unsurprised at the news. I suspect also that a generation happy to splurge the minutiae of their lives over Facebook and Twitter is less likely to be concerned that personal information is up for grabs by the government.
We should not be so blasé. Privacy is a precious commodity. Its commercial value emerged clearly, if grubbily, from the accounts of intrusive journalism unearthed by the Leveson Inquiry. But how far does the state have the right to track our private lives, even if it is in the pursuit of our rather ill-defined national and economic interests? Most would agree that the state has some business monitoring internet traffic, to sniff out trails of criminal or terrorist activity, and there are plausible sounding reassurances that valuable intelligence has been obtained in this way (though it is hard to test such claims).
However, we still need to be wary of our guardians. Our police forces have shown a cavalier disregard for the law when it comes to gathering information on environmentalists, or the families of murder victims or when cosying up to the press for cash. How can we ensure that our intelligence analysts operate to higher standards, now that we have discovered them to be siphoning enormous torrents of information from our computers into theirs?
The admission by GCHQ lawyers that the UK has a "light oversight regime compared to the US" is hardly reassuring. Given the pace of technological change, the state's ability to capture and process information from the web will only increase. It is too early to tell this internet-altered world how we are going to find the proper balance between the invasion of privacy and the rights of the individual, but if we are to maintain any semblance of democracy these questions need to be weighed in public and in parliament.
And yet, amid all the brouhaha, the thought did occur to me that there could be an upside to the discovery of unprecedented levels of state-sponsored snooping. There is one group that might privately be wishing they had access to the information flows being sucked into GCHQ: biographers.
The authors of biographies have, I suspect, very mixed feelings about the perturbing effect of the internet on their profession. Online digital archives – such as the amassed material on the history of DNA at the Wellcome collection – are certainly a boon to biographers (and historians in general). But at the same time, email has almost completely extinguished the art of letter writing, a quintessentially private medium that has traditionally provided access to those incautious remarks that can be crucial to unmasking character and motivation. Such letters (or copies) were commonly preserved by the recipient or sender until after their death – so that the boundaries of privacy were preserved – and bequeathed to families as treasured mementos or to libraries as valuable archives.
I have been reading scientific biographies of late, tracking the development of x-ray crystallography during the 20th century through the lives of figures including Desmond Bernal, Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. In each case the text is coloured and enlivened by snippets from private letters that were written long before the web enveloped the globe.