Shock horror! Hold the front page. It turns out the internet is a gigantic snooperama, a sinister governmental periscope inside your most personal electronic possession – by which THEY can keep a watch on YOU. Even now there are men in dark glasses in Langley, Virginia, whose task is to track the websites you visit, chortling with incredulous laughter. Out in Beijing, there are special agents building your psychological profile from the stuff you like to buy from Ocado. It’s a global conspiracy to invade your privacy, my friends.
It seems that the big US internet companies have been helping the American security services with a Big Brother-type probe called Prism; and the suggestion now is that UK spooks may somehow have been using the results. Everyone is getting understandably worked up. The champions of liberty are in full cry, and in principle I am with them all the way. An Englishman’s laptop is his castle, and all that kind of thing.
My only question is: what on earth did you expect? I have never trusted the security of the internet, or emails, or indeed texts – because it was obvious from the very dawn of what was once called the information superhighway that any data you sent to some server or database or gizmo could no longer be in any sense private. It was no longer shared between you and one recipient. It was stored in the memory of some vast global intermediary. It was out there, in the ether, just waiting to be hacked or lost or stolen or accidentally blurted to your enemies. That is why I have always rather assumed that any email I send should be drafted as if for public consumption, and that all kinds of people could be reading it – should they wish so to fritter their lives – as soon as I pressed “send”.
One night, a few years ago, I was working very late in China, when a hilarious warning sign came up on my screen informing me – I have forgotten the exact words – that “other users” were on my machine. I felt very proud. Someone thought I was worth hacking! I am afraid I just forged on with whatever I was doing, and it may be that the moles are still there in the innards of my laptop, secretly relaying useless information to their masters. Maybe the only way to get rid of them is to take out the hard drive and melt it down, rather as Arnie kills the Terminator. But then I will need a new machine, and that, too, will be immediately vulnerable to infestation.
The whole point about the internet is that everything is, as they say, everywhere; and that makes it hard for anything to be properly private. I see that Larry Page, the CEO of Google, claims it is “completely false” to say that his company gives away information about your internet activity. Pull the other one, Larry. If that is the case, how come all users of your Gmail email accounts get those advertisements pinged at them – ads triggered by words in the very CONTENT of the emails themselves? I don’t give a monkey’s whether it is a machine or a person: someone out there is monitoring my thoughts, as reflected in my emails, and that someone is trying to sell me stuff on the basis of what they have gleaned from my PRIVATE BLOOMING CONVERSATIONS!
I think if I were Shami Chakrabarti, or my old chum David Davis, I might get thoroughly aerated at this point; and I have some sympathy with their general position. But then I am afraid I also have sympathy with our security services, and their very powerful need to use the internet to catch the bad guys – the terrorists, the jihadis, the child porn creeps. There is a trade-off between freedom and security, as Barack Obama rightly says; between the citizen’s right to total internet privacy, and the duty of the state to protect us all from harm.
The question is where you draw the line, and how you enforce it; and in the meantime, I have two suggestions for those libertarians who have been scandalised by the revelations from America. The first is to look at the bestseller lists, and the amazing success of a sweet little book called Letters to Lupin – the gin-sodden epistles of Home Counties racing buff Roger Mortimer to his wayward son.
People adore this book because it evokes those men who fought in the war – Dear Bill characters whose conversation involved dirty jokes, the state of the lawn, the soundness of horses, what the dog had done on the carpet and the general insanity of their wives and other female relatives. They remind us of a generation now fading, capable of stiff upper lip but also of expressing great love and devotion; and they remind us of how that love was expressed. The letter was an event in itself. It wasn’t just a piece of information pinged into your inbox. It was a lovely hodge-podge of gossip and news and jokes, an art-form that needs to be revived, and so all those who want to beat the internet snoops – just get out the old Basildon Bond, suck the end of your biro, assemble your thoughts carefully and do as our grandparents did.
Failing that, there is clearly a massive business opportunity for a British tech company. Look at all these US tech giants: I don’t need to name them – you know who I mean. They don’t pay their fair share of tax; they collaborate with US snoopers; they are altogether too big and powerful. They have had a lot of paint chipped off them lately. We in Britain have produced all sorts of technological breakthroughs – indeed, Tim Berners-Lee actually came up with the World Wide Web. But we have not yet produced a giant on the American scale – and now the gap yawns for a British internet provider that somehow roots out the terrorists and the child molesters, and yet allows the blameless punter to send an email in complete security. We want a British Google that cracks the freedom vs security conundrum. Come on, you Tech City brainboxes, it can’t be that hard!