Novelist John Lanchester was invited to look at the trove of files the Guardian received from Edward Snowden:
In August, the editor of the Guardian rang me up and asked if I would spend a week in New York, reading the GCHQ files whose UK copy the Guardian was forced to destroy. His suggestion was that it might be worthwhile to look at the material not from a perspective of making news but from that of a novelist with an interest in the way we live now.
I took Alan Rusbridger up on his invitation, after an initial reluctance that was based on two main reasons. The first of them was that I don’t share the instinctive sense felt by many on the left that it is always wrong for states to have secrets. I’d put it more strongly than that: democratic states need spies.
And all’s well in the world and we’re worried over nothing?
My week spent reading things that were never meant to be read by outsiders was, from this point of view, largely reassuring. Most of what GCHQ does is exactly the kind of thing we all want it to do. It takes an interest in places such as the Horn of Africa, Iran, and North Korea; it takes an interest in energy security, nuclear proliferation, and in state-sponsored computer hacking.
There doesn’t seem to be much in the documents about serious crime, for which GCHQ has a surveillance mandate, but it seems that much of this activity is covered by warrants that belong to other branches of the security apparatus. Most of this surveillance is individually targeted: it concerns specific individuals and specific acts (or intentions to act), and as such, it is not the threat.
Few people are saying we don’t need intelligence-gathering organizations like GCHQ, but we do have a right to be concerned about what they are doing when they’re not watching actual, known threats. They have capabilities that we generally thought were just from the pages of James Bond novels or Tom Clancy thrillers … and they use them all the time, not just for keeping tabs on the “bad guys”.
In the case of modern signals intelligence, this is no longer true. Life has changed. It has changed because of the centrality of computers and digital activity to every aspect of modern living. Digital life is central to work: many of us, perhaps most of us, spend most of our working day using a computer. Digital life is central to our leisure: a huge portion of our discretionary activity has a digital component, even things which look like they are irreducibly un-digital, from cycling to cooking.
As for our relationships and family lives, that has, especially for younger people, become a digital-first activity. Take away Facebook and Twitter, instant messaging and Skype and YouTube, and then — it’s hard to imagine, but try — take away the mobile phone, and see the yawning gap where all human interaction used to take place. About the only time we don’t use computers is when we’re asleep — that’s unless we have a gadget that tracks our sleep, or monitors our house temperature, or our burglar alarm, or whatever.
This is the central point about what our spies and security services can now do. They can, for the first time, monitor everything about us, and they can do so with a few clicks of a mouse and — to placate the lawyers — a drop-down menu of justifications.
Looking at the GCHQ papers, it is clear that there is an ambition to get access to everything digital. That’s what engineers do: they seek new capabilities. When it applies to the people who wish us harm, that’s fair enough. Take a hypothetical, but maybe not unthinkable, ability to eavesdrop on any room via an electrical socket. From the GCHQ engineers’ point of view, they would do that if they could. And there are a few people out there on whom it would be useful to be able to eavesdrop via an electrical socket. But the price of doing so would be a society that really did have total surveillance. Would it be worth it? Is the risk worth the intrusion?
That example might sound far-fetched, but trust me, it isn’t quite as far fetched as all that, and the basic intention on the part of the GCHQ engineers — to get everything — is there.