How 9/11 Cost All Of Us Our Privacy

After the attacks of 9/11 caught most spy agencies with their pants down, every president, prime minister, or head of a countries security services since, has used that attack to write a blank cheque to do virtually anything they want in the name of counter-terrorism. Yes it was a terrible event, a big shock; but the two ugly wars it ultimately sparked have so far claimed more than half a million lives, which works out to almost 175 deaths for each victim of 9/11. However, recent events and disclosures have revealed that the loss to our human right to privacy and other freedoms in this on-going, amorphous war on terrorism , is also massive and quite incalculable and that our innermost personal secrets and financial affairs are no longer our own business, and are often freely available to any government or local authority body, who may declare an interest in you.

Today Britain’s intelligence chiefs told us that the information disclosed in the Guardian newspaper as a result of the leaks made by the US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, specifically about the way intelligence agencies gather information has already put operations at risk and that al Qaeda would be “lapping it up”.

Giving evidence for the first time at a televised parliamentary committee hearing, the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ said that the revelations had been very damaging. Sir John Sawers, the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), said that the terrorists would be “rubbing their hands with glee” at the level of information put in the public domain.

Snowden disclosed that the UK was monitoring communications on a vast scale and that intelligence agencies were able to “listen” to the internet communications of millions of ordinary people through the GCHQ’s Tempora programme. But Sir Iain said that terrorists did not have a particular method of communication so they needed to gather a vast amount of information, which was combed for snippets of information that might prove useful. Speaking alongside Sir Iain and Sir John was the director general of the Security Service, MI5, Andrew Parker, who denied that the work he was doing was compromising the freedom and democracy of Britons. And yet the legacy of these spy agencies, which cost upward of £2 Billion a year, is a genie that is now well and truly out of the bottle.

For all of their heavy handedness with terrorism law and their arrogant dismissal of our human right to privacy, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ do ultimately protect us and undoubtedly save lives. However, some of the laws they helped create are now being used and abused by some much less altruistic and defence minded individuals and agencies, who have no business poking their noses into our most intimate affairs.

Taxmen are now using anti-terror laws to snoop on those suspected of even minor breaches of the rules. Officials at Revenue and Customs began more than 6,200 investigations last year that relied on surveillance laws, which were spawned by anti-terror legislation. Figures given to MPs recently show the number of cases in which taxmen have used these powers has risen by 85 per cent in the past four years. The Revenue claims the powers are used only in cases where people are suspected of importing drugs, arms and other contraband investigations. But critics accused the body of using the laws to investigate minor breaches of income tax, VAT or tax credit rules and cite Gordon Brown, as the main reason our personal secrets are no longer secret. Brown, Britain’s last Prime Minister, was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2001. He had years earlier done a deal with Tony Blair, who had promised to step down after an unspecified term in office and give Brown a chance to be Prime Minister. However, Brown drove a hard bargain and was given an almost free hand with domestic policy until by 2001, he seemed answerable to nobody. Indeed, many newspapers even speculated that his ever dour persona was some kind of sulk, because Blair should have stepped aside at that year’s General Election in June, so he could finally take the top job.

Anyway, enough political history lessons, but the fact was that Brown was the man who held the purse strings, when all 3 Security Services began their siren calls, in the days after 9/11, for more money and more powers of surveillance. A no-brainer at the time, when Blair and Bush were off beating the Drums of War together, but Brown held out for a much broader wording of the new fast-track laws being rushed through Parliament. So instead of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ getting just what they needed and nothing more, the legislation was so broad brush that Brown wasted no time at all in using it for his own domestic purposes, which had absolutely no connection with terrorism until he successfully re-ladled such things as money laundering and minor tax evasion as acts that might benefit terrorists. Later on Brown was also the main architect of another piece of ‘Terror’ legislation, that now seemingly allows any man and his dog, the powers of surveillance, as long as they work for a Government body or contractor.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) allows public sector officials to watch or follow individuals and use spies to inform on them. This ‘anti-terror’ law is now frequently used by councils, often on the most slender of pretexts. One couple were spied on over suspicions they were cheating on school catchment rules, while others have been followed over littering or dog fouling. Alex Deane of the anti-surveillance pressure group Big Brother Watch said: ‘The widespread abuse of the law by councils has shown us how carefully we must look at the way these snooping powers are used.’ He also added: Some 653 state bodies, including 474 councils, now have the right to spy on us using anti-terror laws.

Finally, it is always hard to get the right balance, especially in an environment where they tell us we are fighting an endless war against terrorism, where old givens on privacy no longer apply if we really want to enjoy personal freedom. Of course this contradiction has long since been ignored and instead they remind us that freedom and privacy with limited security can be fragile. And yet I would suggest that security with limited freedom and privacy can be even more oppressive.
So remember this, next time you make a phone call or use the Internet – someone, somewhere is almost certainly watching you.