Chris Gilson feels Simon Chesterman’s recent book misses the pressing issues in surveillance technology now facing governments.
One Nation Under Surveillance. Simon Chesterman. Oxford University Press. January 2011.
Simon Chesterman’s book One Nation Under Surveillance is timely given the coalition’s recent reforms around public surveillance and order such as the abandonment of biometric ID cards and the abolition of control orders and ASBOS. The book charts the history of state surveillance and spying (the world’s “second oldest profession”), and its relationships with domestic privacy across the West, making an attempt to describe a new ‘social contract’ that governments should aim to follow in their execution of surveillance, both domestic and international.
The author states that this new contract is important given the apparent apathy of the public at the rise in power and remit of intelligence services. He also decrees that we must not be concerned with whether or not governments should collect private information as this is apparently inevitable in our globalized society, but must now focus instead on how this information is used by governments and intelligence services. Central to this book is the theme of accountability; without this, intelligence services can, and do, utilise often unpopular or illegal methods to achieve their objectives.
This context is also bounded by the role of secrecy in Western intelligence services. While there is an obvious need for such secrecy in intelligence gathering, this is often extended to a general resistance to public scrutiny. This resistance serves to hamper public accountability and can hide those methods of intelligence gathering that are either illegal or on the borderline, such as the use of torture and extraordinary rendition. One of his troubling findings is that there is often little or no sanction to those who do overstep moral bounds in this context – only ‘nominal’ sanctions are ever enforced.
The book then turns to a more descriptive account of intelligence services in the US, the UK and the UN. The USA’s intelligence services have been undermined (especially since 9/11) by the rise of outsourcing to private contractors, which as well as being incredibly expensive and often ineffective, have eroded accountability even further through shady lines of control and concerns about commercial sensitivity. Chesterman concludes that “governmental [intelligence] functions should always be kept ‘in-house’”.
Chesterman’s discussion of CCTV, now a large part of UK society, focuses more on the technical aspects of this technology rather than those of privacy or consent, which is written off as artificial given the ubiquity of CCTV. His overly historical account of UN intelligence policy might be of interest to those who keep a close watch on the UN, but seems to add little to the wider discussion of the accountability of intelligence services.
The book’s final section is an attempt to bring together the rather disjointed narrative, first looking at the why, when, to whom and for what of intelligence accountability as well as means of control and oversight. He then makes the point that the computerization of our records makes our own public data even more ‘public’ than ever before – the ability to connect and combine data gives agencies unprecedented abilities for profiling and to use data collected for one purpose to be used for another. He then concludes that the concept of personal privacy is no longer relevant because its definition is contested and problematic, and even more importantly because everyone blogs and emails about their most personal details in any case
In the final chapter, the author attempts to bring together his differing strands by setting out a new social contract where the public grants access to information, and a corresponding loss of privacy, in order to achieve a measure of security provided by government. He sets out a model where intelligence gathering is legal, powers are exercised in public, and are consequence-sensitive as one that is likely to have the most traction with intelligence services. However, for all the talk of a new social contract, the author is not brave enough to chart what he feels is the future direction of the intelligence services he has examined.
Chesterman’s book is an admirable attempt to chart and forensically examine the role and accountability of intelligence services in the West, but is hamstrung by this focus and a lack of data. This western hemisphere focus is largely unexplained (Australia and New Zealand count as ‘Western’ in this context), there is no attempt made to mention or examine services elsewhere, and the few examples of countries outside the US seem odd. For example, he states that the ‘cultural’ tolerance to government surveillance powers remains high in the UK compared with the USA, and says that the public’s disquiet over ID cards emanates from the project’s costs and fears about government competence rather than abuse. Obviously he is unfamiliar with movements such as No2ID or the LSE’s Identity Project. This, a paucity of data, and the frequent use of fictional examples leaves some conclusions seeming flimsy.
In some respects, timing also hampers the work – it has obviously been written prior to the massive release of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks, an event which would certainly be worth an entire extra chapter here. While timing does forgive the author for not mentioning the most recent Wikileaks scandal, that organisation has been active since 2006 and should have at least warranted a passing mention. As a form of inverse surveillance or ‘sousveillance’, organisations and activities such as Wikileaks and the Surveillance Camera Players should have at least warranted a mention along with the author’s name checking of the usual surveillance suspects of Bentham and Foucault. And what of phone hacking – the private sector using surveillance to listen in on private individuals without their knowledge? By putting its focus solely on government sponsored surveillance, this book may be missing the trends now facing governments – that the watched can now near equally watch the watchers.
Chris Gilson is a researcher at the LSE Public Policy Group.