Privacy campaigner and Cambridge University’s Head of Cryptography Professor Ross J Anderson has suggested one way to begin stamping out the British state’s unaccountable involvement in the NSA spying scandal: end the domestic secret services entirely.
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“Were I a legislator,” Anderson says, “I would simply abolish MI5.”
Speaking with Forbes, Anderson notes the only way this kind of systemic data collection has been made possible was through the business models of private industry. The value of information-driven web companies such as Facebook and Google is built around their ability to gather vast tracts of data. It was something the intelligence agencies would have struggled with alone.
“It would never have been realistic for governments to collect so much data because they just don’t have the technical nous or managerial skill to set up and operate the systems concerned,” Anderson says. ”Only private industry could do that. But, of course, now that the systems exist, spooks want access to them.”
Now that the trajectory of the web has pushed previously private information into a pseudo-public domain, it is difficult, if not impossible, to turn back the clock. Maintaining anonymity at the consumer level is incredibly limited. Even with a decent understanding of operational security, privacy would be very difficult to achieve unless it is for a specific purpose, and consumers can still be left open if they are considered a person of interest, for whatever reason.
Instead of an ongoing game of security whack-a-mole between privacy activists and the secretive arms of the state, the most effective means of change will be achieved through political action. In the case of those who feel they are being targeted for identity, race, gender, religion, political views, or sexuality, “campaigning to change the law so that you are no longer a stigmatized minority is the rational way forward,” Anderson says.
But the balance of power is naturally weighted in favor of the secret services, which are not at all transparent or subject to oversight. It would make more sense, according to Anderson, for Britain to “move to the track that you find in more civilized countries like Denmark and Norway, where national security, insofar that it’s a concern, and it isn’t really, is simply something left to the police. ”That’s the appropriate way to deal with this kind of thing: to keep it within the domain of a uniformed, disciplined service that’s subject to proper Parliamentary and judicial oversight. The way to do it is not to have an organization like MI5.”
“One of the reasons intelligence services survive and get so much money is that politicians have an uncomfortable feeling that the services know something about them,” Anderson says. “Sometimes this is true, sometimes this is merely hinted at being true.” He points to J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI over six presidencies, and served under eight, as an example. ”Nobody dared to challenge Hoover, not even Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon,” Anderson says.
Despite accusations against Hoover for giving organized crime an easy ride, among other controversies, Anderson says Washington was terrified of targeting Hoover’s power for fear that he could smear politicians, or publish details of their own alleged secrets, trysts, extramarital affairs, or relationships with lobbyists. ”When you get this sort of thing going on at a systemic level in society, it’s not good,” Anderson says. “Once you start getting secret agencies that act as the Prime Minister’s personal bag of tricks, you are laying yourself open to all sorts of corruption.”