In all the debate about NSA surveillance and wider concerns about data-collection, two crucial trends could be overlooked.
Trend 1 is society’s, especially Western society’s increasing intolerance to risk and uncertainty (growing affluence, though unequally distributed, had created a fear of losing it all), and Trend 2 is a creeping advance of “nudge theory”, a simplified version of behaviour economics, now the norm for most Western governments, whether they are on the right or the left.
I declare two interests: I worked as a senior civil servant directly to two foreign secretaries and one justice secretary, and as a member of the National Criminal Justice Board, with three successive home secretaries. All grappled with the “security vs liberty” paradigm shift of 9/11 and 7/7, that security necessarily must assume top priority. But I also remained committed to what many ministers and civil servants increasingly found irritating, if not detrimental, to government: the unleashing of freedom of information, and the inexorable expectation of transparency that comes with the development of the Internet and social media networks. Under this paradigm, it is only matter of time becomes something becomes public. All that can be managed, if “managed” is still a useful term, is timing.
Missing from much of the media coverage so far is a central tenet of liberal, progressive policy (which this blog espouses): if we act if everybody is a terrorist, the terrorists have won. And linked to this is the view that while terrorism poses an ongoing threat, we stand more to gain from being alert rather than alarmed. Trust is conditional, not absent.
The two trends are interwoven, in that they rely heavily on a paternalistic streak that we cannot shake off, even if we naively think that with a free market comes freedom. An open society requires a proper hinterland, nurtured as carefully as a landscaped garden, particularly a social contract, implicit or explicit, where government, business, civil society and citizens themselves act in collaboration. For our future to be secure and sustainable, it needs to be collaborative.
The way that nudge theory is being used is in danger of lending itself to a virulent ideology that few of us are ready, or want to challenge: we are willing participants of the “libertarian paternalist” paradox that we like the idea of choice yet prefer that it is kept simple for us, and in some respects, made for us. And we are ready for others to put the choice to us, provided we exercise some freedom between the options. On the whole, this makes for an easier, but not a sustainably open and dynamic life. I do not rejoice at this development, and fear its implications.
Whatever the truth or truths at the heart of the Edward Snowden revelations, the unfolding issue rightly highlights that boundaries are not just shifting between the citizen and the State, but between consumers and corporates. The main question is whether we are actively managing those shifting boundaries or drifting towards a new imbalance.
One development that I do find healthy is that the term “consumer” is being seen for what it is: a reductive view of who we are, or could possibly be. An enriched view of ourselves is as citizens, with rights and responsibilities, and different degrees of freedom to act within a society that we ourselves shape, as well as let ourselves be shaped by.
The “securocrats” can only win the argument if the choice is artificially made between security and freedom. We will forever live under the shadow of Hobbes, and will prefer to be as a society over-protected than under- protected. There can be no lasting freedom without security, and no genuine security without freedom. We have to work that much harder at protecting our freedoms. Managing our own sense of insecurity is critical to a measured policies on security.
Even if Edward Snowden becomes a hero to some and a traitor to others, the response of the Establishment – nowadays much broader than the military-industrial complex- will be to justify, not limit, greater powers of surveillance, monitoring and data-collection. Whether this makes the State and its agencies more effective is another matter.
The cause of counter-terrorism is helped by the willing engagement of supportive communities and individuals, and a free, independent and responsible media. Paranoia may bring about sudden injections of funding, and temporary public reassurance, but not a sustainable open and law-abiding society.
Terrorism is judged too much of a chronic threat since 9/11 and 7/7
for breaches of individual rights to become the dominant concern. But there is still enough of a concern that security to be effective requires democratic consent. The security agencies, as with other institutions, operate best when they know their rules of engagement and they can rely on other parts of the system for support. Politicians and media commentators need to be reminded that terrorism thrives not only death and destruction, but on fear and people’s ability to function normally. Every contribution to the public debate impacts on our sense of well-being. If we are alarmist, rather than alert, we erode the very fabric that we profess to defend. The term “terror” can be used too loosely.
I had dinner the other night with a group of Israelis on holiday. They said they had to take in the daily threat to their security, yet still function happily and normally. One of the party who was 67 years old said he had fought in five wars. With dry humour, he said the fifth war was always being fought.
For civil libertarians to win the argument, they need to demonstrate that our security, not just our freedom, is increasingly compromised or damaged by too widely targeted or indiscriminate surveillance. This can be shown over time by the cost of deteriorating trust in institutions and the public support- and funding- they receive. The police in the UK is a good example of how their resources are now too thinly stretched because in good times the political class and media did too little to communicate the benefits of better-funded policing. Effective policing combined with more closely integrated communities is still the best form of defence against terrorism.
We create the monsters that are designed to protect us (the licence that we give, primarily through our elected representatives, to various instruments of the State) and to make our lives more convenient and materially richer (the consumer choices we make that create the information used by companies for marketing and communications).
The monster is not the State or corporate organisations but our own failure to exercise citizenship and to act as responsible consumers, challenging in our day-to-day interactions what we find unacceptable.
We demand both too much and too little. We demand that the State protects us against every conceivable scenario of terrorism, yet balk at the net being consciously or inadvertently widened to capture not just potential terrorist targets but those with one or more degrees of separation from them. We demand too little in that vigilance is not a one-off reaction to a terror outrage or threat, but the relentless scrutiny of the instruments of State and their work. The concern over the balance between State and citizen, and corporate and consumer, will renew calls for a more informed debate about what freedom really means for a global citizen in an interconnected and more technologically driven world.
It can only be a positive development that our attention had be drawn to what happens in our name, whether we will ever know what is really going on.