Privacy, terrorism and the surveillance secrets of GCHQ
Security expert Richard J Aldrich tells Richard McComb about the threats to privacy posed by Britain’s electronic snoops.
Researching the history of GCHQ, Britain’s largest and arguably most secretive intelligence organisation, can be an unsettling experience.
Just ask security expert Richard J Aldrich, who has spent most of the past decade looking into the super-snoop agency, based at Cheltenham in a circular building known as The Doughnut.
Aldrich has just published GCHQ, an uncensored history of the Government Communications Headquarters, a clandestine body both feared and revered for its code-breaking exploits and covert, often highly controversial, surveillance techniques.
GCHQ is the direct descendant of Bletchley Park, whose pipe-smoking cypher boffins were celebrated for cracking Nazi Germany’s wartime communications.
However, the same nostalgic glow has never bathed the activities of our modern-day Station X, due in part to its growing reputation for what Aldrich calls “retail surveillance.”
As his book makes clear, we are all, in a sense, being watched; and Aldrich, professor of international security at the University of Warwick, is not naive enough to think that he may have slipped under the radar. After all, snooping on the snoops – that’s just not British, is it?
“It is a great relief to have finished the book so I can leave alone the lead box I have been carrying my phone around in for the last eight years,” says Aldrich.
“I typed the book on a special laptop that was disabled so it didn’t connect to the internet. It’s not that I’m paranoid or anything.”
That’s the thing about secrecy: it does breed paranoia. Talking to Aldrich by phone, I am aware that the line is particularly poor, muffled. They’re not listening are they?
“In the United States, we know they had an intelligence programme called First Fruits which looked at journalists and historians who were studying the intelligence services. Once you see the Americans doing it, it’s only prudent to be cautious,” says Aldrich.
He does offer mild reassurance about the integrity of my phone line.
“One of the things that professionals tell you is that actually listening in to phones is very time-consuming. Even if you have got computers checking for key words, you have then got to listen to the transcripts,” says Aldrich.
“It is much more efficient to go into people’s computers. The most important thing is to make sure you are working on a computer that doesn’t connect to the internet and then you are hygienic.”
Hence the “dumb” laptop Aldrich used when writing his book. He couldn’t see them; they couldn’t see him.
GCHQ is a fascinating, accessible read, detailing the development of the organisation through the Cold War, its daring intelligence-gathering operations under the Soviet fleet, the Real IRA’s bombing of Omagh and the War on Terror, which has put a monumental strain on the investigative resources of all law enforcement agencies, covert or otherwise.
The wars in Iraq and now Afghanistan, and crucially, the involvement of British citizens in al-Qaida inspired terror plots on home soil, have blurred the boundaries between the remit of GCHQ, MI5 (the domestic intelligence service), MI6 (overseas intelligence) and the police.
Then there has been the inexorable rise of the “wired world” with text messages, email, web browsing and financial transactions casting an electronic web of our public and private movements and sparking a fundamental change in the nature of intelligence since the end of the Cold War.
Aldrich says: “In the Cold War, you think of people smuggling bits of paper out of Berlin or Moscow under coat collars. Now we are dredging intelligence from much more mundane places – emails, which aren’t encoded, mobile phone conversations, which aren’t encoded, people’s Tesco loyalty cards, transport cards.
"The agencies are overlaying all this stuff – your credit card details, internet access details, details they have got from your car number plate off cameras – and when they overlay all that they can build up a minute picture of your life. But none of this stuff is terribly secret. It is ordinary stuff.
“Our ideas of privacy are changing. Britain sent 30 billion texts last year, which are a minute description of our everyday life. Almost every five minutes we send out a little electronic signal.
"People put themselves on My Space and Bebo. There is a change in attitude to privacy. Privacy is dissolving to some degree. We are moving from a private society to a transparent society and what matters is the balance of power.
“Who is going to own all this information? Is it going to be us? Is it going to be the Government? Is it going to be Tesco? Is it going to be Google?”