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More like the Stasi than James Bond

9 June 2014

Tim Dawson

A capacity crowd snaked round the block outside Shoreditch town hall for an encounter with The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger at an event marking the anniversary of his paper's "Edward Snowden" story.

The paper's editor said:

"No one in Parliament seems to take their role overseeing these aspects of security seriously. There is an awful complacency."

Part of the problem, Rusbridger suggested, is that in Britain our impression of the security services is based on James Bond. He said:

"In Germany, the word spy conjures up images of the Stasi."

The electronic eavesdropping that the Snowden files revealed were more akin to the fearful East German service, that had agents spying on neighbours in every street, than Ian Fleming's cocktail-loving playboy, was the Guardian man's contention.

He was speaking at the Don't Spy On Us day of action, a one-day conference to launch a campaign against mass surveillance. It hopes to persuade Britain's political parties to commit to significantly more rigorous parliamentary oversight of the security services before the next election.

The campaign's director Mike Harris says that there is much to fear from state snooping:

"Own a smartphone? Ever buy things online, or use a social network? Have you used a mobile phone in a hospital? Play Angry Birds, or enjoy cricket? OK, well it's very likely some of your data will have passed through GCHQ's surveillance programs.
"GCHQ doesn't need to persuade a judge before it analyses your data, it can do so using the lax surveillance laws which give it sweeping powers, in particular if you are a foreign national. Yet we just don't know how many people are affected because GCHQ won't tell us or even Parliamentarians what it is up to."

There was general acknowledgement among speakers, who included actor Stephen Fry,  Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales and Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti, that it is an issue that might struggle to gain political traction.

"People care about privacy, but usually only when it is too late", said Cory Doctorow, author and blogger. Tim Duffy, chief executive of advertising agency M&C Saatchi said that "fear of terrorism beats the fear of intrusion for most of the public".

Tim Duffy's solution was a thought-provoking advertising campaign built around the slogan "Spying: where do you draw the line?", highlighting GCHQ and the NSA's ability to listen in on the most mundane conversation. The audience loved his pitch, but whether his idea would translate into the will to fund an advertising campaign was hard to know.

Investigative journalist Duncan Campbell said that in his view the threats from mass surveillance were thus far "existential". He said:

"Make no mistake, once people start to realise that someone could be listening in to whatever they say by email or phone, they will soon stop contacting journalists with stories."

Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian's defence and security correspondent, who worked on the Snowden stories spoke of his frustration at the way that the rest of the British media had failed to take up the story as much as he thought it deserved. "I was particularly disappointed with the BBC, if they had given it more airtime, it would have kept it on the media's agenda," he said.

Perhaps, as MacAskill's boss had earlier suggested, the rest of the media viewed the issue as one that only interested "sandal-wearing lefties". Saturday's crowd certainly bore that description. That so many sacrificed a sunny day in June for a day of action, however, showed that there may be the nucleus to promote a mass popular movement to put brakes on the surveillance state.

Tim Dawson is the NUJ's vice-president

Tags: , surveillance, guardian, alan rusbridger, edward snowden, newspapers, gchq, liberty, wikipedia, investigative journalism