Novelist's GCHQ concerns after reading top-secret files
TOP-secret files explaining the scope and nature of GCHQ's work and its ambitions have been examined by an award-winning novelist.
John Lanchester was allowed by The Guardian to read the files leaked by National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden in New York, even after UK government officials oversaw the destruction of computers containing the data in the newspaper's London offices.
Mr Lanchester is the author of novels The Debt to Pleasure, Fragrant Harbour and Capital, which explore the financial crash.
He told The Guardian that he was reluctant to look through the papers because he had always felt: "Democratic states need spies."
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He added: "We do have enemies... enemies who are in deadly earnest; enemies who wish you reading this dead whoever you are, for no other reason than that you belong to a society like this one."
He added: "I get all that. It doesn't thrill me to bits that the state has to use the tools of electronic surveillance to keep us safe, but it seems clear to me that it does."
Reading thousands of documents that were classified as high as top secret was, he said, "largely reassuring".
"Most of what GCHQ does is exactly the kind of thing we all want it to do – citing its interest in trouble spots and threats around the world," he said.
But Lanchester's gravest concerns came when he read about the mass capture of electronic data.
He said: "This is the kind of intelligence gathering that sucks in data from everyone, everywhere: from phones, internet use – from email to website visits – social networking, instant messaging and even areas such as video gaming. In short, everything digital."
He said the files showed both GCHQ and the United States' NSA were able to intercept anything that travels over the internet through programmes called Tempora, Prism and Upstream.
"What this adds up to is a new thing in human history: an agent of the state can target your home phone, mobile, email, any of your credit card numbers or any of your log-ins to a web service," he said.
"[The State] can, in essence, know everything about you, including – thanks to the ability to look at your internet searches – what's on your mind."
Lanchester puzzled at why this hasn't caused much fuss in the UK – unlike in the US and Europe – on both sides of the political spectrum.
He speculated that it may be to do with differing political traditions: "In countries where 'rights' were established early, the state transgressing brings anger."
But in the UK, unless specific laws have been broken – and he said the legal framework on interception and intelligence is both broad and behind the times – nobody seems to mind.
He also criticised GCHQ and NSA's security. "Our spooks lost at least 58,000 pages of classified documents to a US civilian sitting at a workstation in Hawaii, and did so without realising it had happened," he said.
"In effect they're saying, 'Your secrets are safe with us, except when we lose them'."
In conclusion, Lanchester said: "People misunderstand what a police state is.
"It isn't a country where the police strut around in jackboots; it's a country where the police can do anything they like.
"Similarly, a security state is one in which the security establishment can do anything it likes."
He put forward two proposals.
One is a commission to supervise GCHQ, which includes at least one or two public figures known for advocating open government and human rights.
The second is a digital bill of rights that means the state can only target internet communications with an explicit need; that open-ended mass interception not be allowed.
"There can be no default assumption that the state is allowed access to our digital life," he said.