The Power of the State versus the Right of a Citizen to Privacy

I’ve thought about the issue of the power of the state versus our individual rights and freedoms quite a lot recently. Events such as 9/11, 7/7 and the recent events in Paris and Brussels starkly illustrate just how important it is to get the balance right. Edward Snowdon, the whistle blower, was right when he said “…If we do nothing, we sort of sleepwalk into a total surveillance state where we have both a super-state that has unlimited capacity to apply force with an unlimited ability to know (about the people it is targeting) – and that’s a very dangerous combination. That’s the dark future…”

This is the dystopian vision of the future that Orwell foreshadowed in his book 1984 and nobody really wants to go there. I can remember watching Andrew Parker of the Security Service and Iain Lobban of GCHQ appearing in front of the Security and Intelligence committee to justify the intelligence gathering powers to be granted to the state by the Draft Communications Data Bill a.k.a. the Snoopers Charter. They provided a compelling case for the bill by emphasising the point that the primary responsibility of the state is to keep its citizens safe. Without the right to security and life, all other rights are meaningless.

In our modern communications age, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to track and intercept the communications of those people and organisations that would do us harm. Our security agencies need all the help they can get with this almost impossible job. But, as a well-known commentator in one of the UK’s lower rent national newspapers is apt to frequently observe: “…my golden rule is that if you give anyone a modicum of authority, they will always, always, abuse it.” And unfortunately he is pretty much spot on the money.

In another time and another age, back in the mid-1970s, the Nixon Administration had to grapple with its response to the Pentagon Papers leak for which Daniel Ellsberg was responsible. Donald Rumsfeld (erstwhile US Defence Secretary under President G.W. Bush and one of the principal architects of the debacle that was the 2nd Iraq war) the ultimate political insider who was then Chief of Staff to Nixon, observed on one of the White House tapes:

“….To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing…. You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”

And this is where people like Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowdon, Bradley Manning and even Julian Assange play a useful, if not vital role in keeping our democracy and our freedoms safe. Individuals on the inside or outside who are prepared to risk all to challenge, to question and even to expose the activities of a sometimes over-powerful state and who help to hold it to account, are in my view, an essential piece of the mechanism needed to ensure that the right equilibrium is established between the power of the state and the rights of its citizens. The old Quaker saw about the need to “speak truth to power” is as valid in 2015 as when it was originally coined.

Where do I stand with respect to the difficult question of safety versus liberty? I stand at the fulcrum wherever it is, where the benefits of safety are counterbalanced by our rights to freedom and liberty. This is not an easy thing to determine and it is an equilibrium that is constantly in flux. Right now, I think we are traversing an exceptionally difficult period where, in order to be safe, we may have to cede some of our freedoms.

At this point, the freedom obsessives will frequently quote Benjamin Franklin who said “He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.” But I disagree with him on this issue. He could not possibly have foreseen the rise of extreme Islam or the power and reach of the modern internet and the impact of both on our security. These factors combined with the activities of hostile countries like Russia and terrorist groups like Islamic State and Al Queda, are creating some very serious challenges for our democracy and security that were unimaginable in Ben Franklin’s day.

Paradoxically, I think that the very technologies that are said to be making us vulnerable will be the instruments that help to keep us safe. Whilst social media can undoubtedly be used for malign purposes, it can also be used to help protect people. Hackers against ISIL is a recent example where techy bods are getting together to take the IT war to the terrorists. And good on them I say. Wikileaks is a useful mechanism for encouraging governments to think more carefully about what they do and how they do it. The Panama Papers have lit a fire under the tax dodging super rich who will never again be able to feel that their illicit millions are safely salted away in impregnable tax havens. Facebook and Twitter are fabulous instruments for enabling people to share ideas and information freely. After all, human progress happens a millimetre at a time, facilitated by a million conversations like this one.