Smiley’s People

Thursday, April 17, 2008
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Smiley swirled the last of the brandy in his glass and muttered: “We’ve given up far too many freedoms in order to be free. Now we’ve got to take them back.” That legendary spymaster’s warning about the over-intrusive, overmighty national security states that we in the self-styled free world built up during the Cold War was delivered in John le Carré’s 1990 novel The Secret Pilgrim. Outside the pages of fiction and across the Western world, vast amounts of personal information are held on individuals by states and private companies; ancient liberties are curbed, people are detained without trial, free speech has been stifled.

Shamingly, among the very worst offenders, the most careless with its citizens’ liberties, the most profligate in surveillance, is the British state. And instead of taking their freedoms back, as Smiley urged, the British people have lost more of them. Once proud to style itself “mother of the free,” Britain has the most watched society in Europe. The country that invented habeas corpus now boasts one of the longest periods of detention without charge in the civilized world, and the guardians of national security want to make it even longer. Yet these same guardians cannot detect illegal immigrants working in their own offices (and even, in one case, reportedly helping to repair the prime minister’s top-security car) or detain a terrorist suspect (who turned out to be a wholly innocent Brazilian) without shooting him in the head.

A compulsion to legislate ever more restrictions is combined with paroxysms of staggering inefficiency. Can anyone think of a better formula for sacrificing liberty without gaining security? Smiley must be turning in his grave. Or if, as is sometimes rumored, he is still living quietly in Cornwall under another name, we need to hear his voice again.

The salami-slicing of Britain’s civil liberties, including the right to privacy, has at least two causes.

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One is the spectacular growth, since Smiley’s day, of the technologies of information, communication, observation, and data registration. The other is the threat of international terrorism, especially jihadist terrorism, made dramatically visible by the New York, Madrid, and London bombings. Even without the atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7, however, we would still have witnessed the vast growth in personal information stored in computer servers, mobile phone records, credit-rating databanks, closed-circuit videotapes, and the like. Even without that explosion in the technological possibilities for state and private Big Brothering, such terrorist attacks would have provoked a tightening of security.

But it is the combination of technology and the possibility of terrorist attacks that makes all this so alarming, and Britain has the grisly distinction of leading the democratic world on both fronts. The official information commissioner, Richard Thomas, says the country has already sleepwalked itself into a surveillance society.

A compulsion to legislate ever more restrictions is combined with paroxysms of staggering inefficiency. Can anyone think of a better formula for sacrificing liberty without gaining security?

Privacy International, the human rights group that monitors surveillance societies worldwide, says Britain is the worst-performing democracy in this respect. Take a look at the map on its website (www.privacyinternational. org): Britain is the only country in the Western world to be colored black, an “endemic surveillance society,” alongside communist China and Putin’s Russia. The United Kingdom has more than 4 million video surveillance cameras. Its national DNA database, the largest in the world, is supposed to have some 4.25 million names on it by the end of next year—roughly 1 in every 14 inhabitants. According to the last published report of the commissioner of intercepted communications, more than 400,000 official requests were made to tap telephone calls and monitor e-mails from January 2005 to March 2006. A staggering 795 security, police, and local authority bodies are entitled to make such requests. Need I go on?

At the same time, bill after bill has chipped away at our ancient rights in the name of combating terrorism. For centuries, habeas corpus meant that you had to be charged or released after twenty-four hours. In 2004, that was increased to forty-eight hours; in 2006, it went up to twenty-eight days; and the police want to push it up again. Yet, as the civil liberties pressure group Liberty has recently shown in a careful comparative study, most other leading democracies come nowhere close to that figure, despite facing similar threats. In Canada, for instance, the pre-charge detention limit is still one day; in the United States, it’s two days; even in Turkey, it’s only seven and a half days.

Of course we should not be naive. International and homegrown terrorists pose a threat that is especially difficult to detect. If the head of MI5 is even close to right in saying that there may be 2,000 such people in Britain, they need to be watched, and stopped before they act. There is a difficult balance to strike between liberty and security. But during the past decade Britain has erred much too far on the side of security. In fact, that is to understate the error: we have probably diminished our own security by overreacting, alienating some who might otherwise not have been alienated and, at the same time, building up the free world’s most thickly knit public and private surveillance society.

Even without the atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7, there would have been a vast growth in the personal information stored in servers, phone records, credit-rating databanks, and videotapes.

Why has this historic homeland of freedom erred so much on the side of restricting freedom? Is it just, as is often said, the “authoritarian reflexes” of New Labour? Or is it precisely because we think of ourselves as living in a land of old and self-evident liberty that we are so relaxed about letting this or that right or customary freedom (each seemingly small in itself ) be sliced away?

The myth—our own myth about ourselves—is so strong that we don’t see the changed reality underneath. We go on saying, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” and don’t recognize that it’s less so by the day. I find it suggestive that Britain, probably the freest society in Europe in the twentieth century, is now the most watched society in Europe, while Germany, a country with a unique twentieth-century double experience—Nazi and Stasi—of unfreedom, is now, according to Privacy International, the least watched.

Yet more important than wondering how we got into this mess is to work out how to get out of it. We need a change of paradigm: from liberty through security, to security through liberty. We have a prime minister who presents liberty as a—perhaps even the—central British value. He invites us to explore how “together we can write a new chapter in our country’s story of liberty.”

On Privacy International’s map, Britain is the only country in the Western world to be colored black, an “endemic surveillance society,” alongside communist China and Putin’s Russia.

Invitation accepted. Let’s start by not extending the period for detention without charge a single day further. Let’s continue by cutting back not our rights but our bloated public and private apparatus of surveillance. Nick Clegg, a candidate for the Liberal Democratic leadership, has said he would go to prison rather than surrender the personal data needed for a proposed ID card. Chris Huhne, the other candidate, has proposed an “anti–Big Brother bill.” Committees of both the Commons and the Lords are to report on the surveillance society in the next few months. Let us become again what we think we are: one of the world’s most free countries. Let the fighting back begin.