Technology vs. Democracy

I participated in an interesting discussion last night at the Frontline Club on the topic of “privacy vs. security: have we got the balance right?” It was chaired by the BBC’s urbane Mark Urban. The other panellists were Professor Helen Margetts of the Oxford Research Institute, John Kampfner, former Editor of the New Statesman and now a consultant to Google, and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary and now Chairman of the Commons Intelligence Committee which is currently looking into the Snowden revelations and their implications (if any) for the UK.

It was an enjoyable discussion with a packed and attentive audience. Malcolm Rifkind did a predictably good job of defending the proposition that the UK is doing a reasonable job of ensuring that its spooks obey the laws that apply to them (specifically the Intelligence Services Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Human Rights Act — though he said relatively little about the HRA). What he didn’t address — because it’s not in his Committee’s remit, was my question about whether GCHQ is a competent outfit which gives value for the oceans of public money that it consumes. And nobody really addressed my biggest concern, which is whether the level of comprehensive surveillance that we now have is, in the end, compatible with a democratic, open society.

Just before embarking on this post, a link popped up in my Twitterstream. It led to an astonishing post on the Economist blog. It’s entitled “America versus Democracy” and starts from the observation that FISC, the secret court that supposedly authorises NSA surveillance, has effectively become a parallel Supreme Court, because it is making law relating to the Fourth Amendment (which is the one that supposedly regulates the state’s ability to intrude on citizens’ privacy). And it’s doing this lawmaking entirely in secret.

But then the post begins to explore the implications of this.

That all the people of the Earth, by dint of common humanity, are entitled to the protections of democracy is an inspiring principle. However, its foreign-policy implications are not really so clear. To those of us who are sceptical that America has the authority to intervene whenever and wherever there are thwarted democratic rights, the advocates of democracy-promotion offer a more businesslike proposition. It is said that authoritarianism, especially theocratic Islamic authoritarianism, breeds anti-American terrorism, and that swamp-draining democracy-promotion abroad is therefore a priority of American national security. If you don’t wish to asphyxiate on poison gas in a subway, or lose your legs to detonating pressure-cookers at a road-race, it is in your interest to support American interventions on behalf of democracy across the globe. So the story goes.

However, the unstated story goes, it is equally important that American democracy not get out of hand. If you don’t want your flight to La Guardia to end in a ball of fire, or your local federal building to be razed by a cataclysm of exploding fertiliser, you will need to countenance secret courts applying in secret its own secret interpretation of hastily drawn, barely debated emergency security measures, and to persecute with the full force of the world’s dominant violent power any who dare afford a glimpse behind the veil.

You see, democracy here at home must be balanced against the requirements of security, and it is simply too dangerous to leave the question of this balance to the democratic public. Open deliberation over the appropriate balance would require saying something concrete about threats to public safety, and also about the means by which those threats might be checked. But revealing such information would only empower America’s enemies and endanger American lives. Therefore, this is a discussion Americans can’t afford to have. Therefore, the power to determine that this is a discussion the public cannot afford to have cannot reside in the democratic public. That power must reside elsewhere, with the best and brightest, with those who have surveyed the perils of the world and know what it takes to meet them. Those deep within the security apparatus, within the charmed circle, must therefore make the decision, on America’s behalf, about how much democracy—about how much discussion about the limits of democracy, even—it is safe for Americans to have.

That’s the argument I was trying to make last night, but much more eloquently stated. It’s why this stuff really matters.

On the way home on the train, I was reading the New Yorker, still one of the great treasures of journalism, when I came on a cartoon. It shows two NSA operatives sitting before a wall of computer monitors. “After we read every e-mail that’s ever been written”, one is saying to the other, “I’m gonna start on that new Dan Brown novel”.