Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
There are also the specific circumstances of people like Snowden. Those at Bletchley Park were serving King and Country, but the NSA in particular outsources work to private companies – Snowden was working for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton when he flew the roost. And regardless of current employer, few people now expect to have a job for life, reducing the default loyalty of previous generations.
More specifically, the digitisation of spying has required agencies to recruit digitally minded people – there may even be a GCHQ job ad by the side of this article. To generalise enormously, quite a few techies have what might be called a digital morality, seeing things as right or wrong and believing that the latter should be exposed for the common good. That works rather well for developing open-source software, but such people seem more likely than most to blow whistles. You could see certain readers of The Register as freedom’s last, best hope.
Finally, the media is learning to arbitrage nationalities. Once upon a time, government officials would have leaned on Fleet Street to keep a national secret under its collective hat. They tried it this time too, but following the lead of WikiLeaks, The Guardian now shifts between acting as a British newspaper, an American website and a Brazilian blog, depending on convenience.
And while its editor acquiesced by smashing up a computer in its London basement while GCHQ staff watched, both parties knew full well that the documents it held could still be turned into copy in the Americas.
This all creates conditions which make it much harder for the secret world to keep its digital methods secret, encouraging terrorists to move off-grid – which is, after all, where real terror is created, with guns and bombs rather than computers crashing. One implication is that governments should consider moving funds from signals intelligence (sigint) to human intelligence, the real-world spies that infiltrate terrorist groups.
But we would still need sigint – with reforms. Former NSA boss General Michael Hayden has said his agency needs to “show a lot more leg” with greater transparency and scrutiny to maintain public confidence, and Dame Stella Rimmington, one-time head of MI5, has made similar comments.
There is a model for this. It is not a secret that Britain always has a nuclear-armed submarine at sea – that’s how it works as a deterrent. Neither are the capabilities of the police secret. The existence of the sub and the police’s powers are constantly up for debate and can be changed, but there are rarely whistles to be blown (when they are, it’s often because the police have secretly exceeded these powers).
Operational secrets remain – where the sub is, who the police are investigating – but only have short-term value. The methods are not secret, something which is also largely true for physical spying, given it is as old as humanity. Yet they still work.
Secrecy over methods has to last for years or decades until they become obsolete, and given the often-grey ethics at work, it is highly vulnerable to whistleblowing. The government could give the whistlers nothing to blow about – by stating GCHQ’s capabilities, at least for the surveillance of individuals if not other governments, and getting them explicitly cleared (or not) by Parliament. Its operations would remain secret, but its broad methods would be officially known to all.
In the wired digital world partly created by GCHQ - and indirectly by Bletchley – it is nearly impossible to keep a secret for long. It’s looking like that applies to the spies, too.
In the 1940s and beyond, Bletchley to all intents never existed. Now it’s a tourist attraction. Until the early 1980s, GCHQ didn’t officially exist: now it’s on Google Earth and the sides of Cheltenham’s buses. The government abandoned secrecy over the agency’s existence, as it had become futile and ridiculous. It’s time to go much further: in General Hayden’s words, to show a lot more leg. ®
* Including, according to Snowden, only exceptionally well-executed strong encryption.