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Tory 'terror' affair shows danger of ubiquitous surveillance

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Comment Few will be surprised by the verdict of the Home Affairs Select Committee on the Damian Green affair.

But the conclusion to the debacle is a useful and timely illustration of the threat to democracy posed by the forthcoming Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP). A delayed consultation on its proposals, one of which is a central communications data silo and a ubiquitous wiretap system, is due "in spring".

The "national security" justification offered by Jacqui Smith for the warrantless counter-terror police raid on a fellow member of Parliament's offices was trumped up by officials embarrassed by a series of leaks, we've now learned. The information about immigration failures fed to the Tories was politically damaging to the Labour government, but arguably in the public interest, and certainly no threat to national security.

The Committee concluded: "There is a clear mismatch between Sir David's [Sir David Normington, the most senior civil servant in the Home Office] description of the sort of material that he suspected had been leaked from the Home Office and the Cabinet Office's letter to the police stating "there has been considerable damage to national security already as a result of some of these leaks".

The police were called in to protect the state by the Cabinet Office, the Whitehall-only department that serves as the nexus of political and civil service power. It's also the department tasked with coordinating the spooky parts of government; MI5, MI6, GCHQ, and the Defence Intelligence Staff all report to ministers via the Cabinet Office's central intelligence machinery.

Taken together, the Cabinet Office's willingness to talk up national security threats in the Damian Green case and its closeness to the agencies who would build and operate IMP should serve as a warning.

IMP was initiated, we're told by Gordon Brown no less, "to ensure that... our national interests will continue to be protected".

Are we to believe, then, that the Cabinet Office would not involve the intelligence services and their proposed database of every electronic communication in the UK in a future Whitehall mole hunt? After all, Christopher Galley, Green's Home Office source was a threat to "national security" in Cabinet Office eyes. Identifying him was important enough a target for police to raid an elected representative.

With the appropriate data mining software, all an IMP-capable intelligence officer told to find the mole need do is bring up a list of Home Office officials' recent email and mobile contacts. Then, just cross-reference that list with a similar one for Conservative Central HQ staff.

Maybe the spook will track down the leaker instantly; maybe he'll come up with a short list of suspects for other mole hunters to interview. Either way, the effect will be the promotion of secrecy in Whitehall, to the detriment of democracy and the public interest.

Another current political brouhaha provides further illustration that in the heat of political battle, the definition of "national security" can become more flexible. Just as the Cabinet Office claimed "national security" to trigger the arrest of Damian Green, Downing Street could make a reasonable case that the integrity of its communications was threatened by the exposure of spinner Damian McBride last weekend.

That is because Paul Staines, the political blogger also known as Guido Fawkes, obtained emails that were sent from Number 10. They showed the connivance of a man paid from the public purse in a unseemly plot to smear senior Tories and their families, a matter of great public interest. To officials concerned with national security, however, such mudslinging is irrelevant - what matters is the breach of security.

Staines hasn't revealed who gave him the emails, but to an IMP-enabled government, the temptation to have a look for clues in the database would be strong. After all, there could be a breach of network security at Downing Street, which would of course be a threat to national security.

Perhaps some officials might err though, plagued by suspicions that consulting the IMP database in such a situation was too heavy a blow against democracy. In that case they might refer to the recent words of retired Cabinet Office intelligence chief Sir David Omand as he considered data mining for a think tank report.

"The realm of intelligence operations is of course a zone to which the ethical rules that we might hope to govern private conduct as individuals in society cannot fully apply," he wrote.

"Finding out other people's secrets is going to involve breaking everyday moral rules."

So there they have it, from the man who was in charge of security and intelligence at the Cabinet Office when IMP was cooked up: new surveillance technologies will mean the rules don't apply. The Damian Green affair shows the rules are already being bent in Whitehall.

"Public trust in the essential reasonableness of UK police, security and intelligence agency activity will continue to be essential," Omand continues in his treatise on surveillance data mining, which maintains the terrorist threat remains high. But with friends like these, Sir David, who needs enemies? ®

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