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Democrat June-July 2002 (Number 63)

The Spying Game

'Two things are infinite. One is the universe, the other is human stupidity.'
Albert Einstein

Galileo Telescope

At first glance the above quotation may seem to reflect considerable cynicism and disillusionment with human kind, but Einstein to whom the maxim is attributed, possibly had good reason to make it. J Edgar Hoover, that rather weird head of the FBI, and his agents subjected Einstein to considerable surveillance in attempts to show he was a Soviet spy to have him deported. Telephone tapping, sifting domestic rubbish and other dirty tricks were used to satisfy their paranoia.

History demonstrates that to challenge orthodoxy or establishment views is often a trigger to this kind of intrusion. Galileo Galilei (1564 -1642) is a classical example of how scientific truths were rejected and Galileo persecuted because his ideas did not coincide with those wielding power. Advancement of society has merely changed the methods used.

Of course, legislation is in place ostensibly to prevent abuse. Lip service is paid to the rights of people to be protected against indiscriminate probing, but rules as we know are often cosmetic and disregarded whenever it suits the state.

The present government and others before it have for example allowed and assisted a foreign power to spy on us, namely the USA via the 'listening' station at Menwith Hill near Harrogate. Here the US authorities have the capacity to monitor thousands of telephone calls at any given moment without let or hindrance.

There is little doubt personal details can be probed by various means and data stored by government agencies and other organizations. Some people will remember the Economic League which was in the business of supplying personal details of people to others such as prospective employers on payment of a fee. There were many times when reports indicated information supplied was found to be inaccurate and damaging to that person.

Instead of clamping down on the invasion of privacy we now find, in the face of widespread opposition from civil rights groups, our government and the EU attempting to put in place measures to expand the powers of law enforcement agencies to monitor telephone and e-mail usage. Telephone and internet service providers will, if the EU and our government have their way, be compelled to keep details of customer communications. Mobile phones will in effect be like self-tagging devices once switched on.

Reports indicate the British government has played a major part in pushing the EU parliament to vote for these powers to be implemented. The real question is, who is pushing whom? Westminster has already 'independently' introduced such measures via the anti-terrorism bill and ministers were to have discussed the introduction of further measures aimed at increasing the number of organizations to be given the power to demand communications information - this has now been delayed. The police, intelligence services, Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise, already have such powers. Organizations such as the food standards agency, local authorities, postal services commission and numerous Whitehall departments and others well documented in the national press, will have powers to snoop on us if we are apathetic enough to allow it.

Under RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) which became law two years ago these authorities will be able to demand detailed information without a court order, from internet service providers and telephone companies etc. The very words Human Rights Act may sound good but those words and the contents of the Act look very sick in the face of recent events. The concern being expressed by political groupings throughout Europe about the rise of the extreme right is somewhat ironic when they then proceed to attempt to put in place fascist type policies on asylum and spying.

The arguments about protecting us from terrorism and crime are as ever being trotted out. The almost slavish adherence to the idea that presentation is paramount is like applying gloss paint to rotten woodwork. Treating symptoms instead of root causes compounds the sickness. Should we not be asking questions about the nature of a society in which crime proliferates? What is it that causes some to commit acts of terror and others to seek asylum? Could it not be that some fundamental causes of individual and societal malfunctioning are to be found in the greed and dishonesty deeply entrenched at all levels?

Behind the infantile guff about Tony Blair's role at that funeral is the serious business of ways in which the rights of ordinary people are slowly being eroded. Once we are securely trussed up in the EU straightjacket, objectors can rest assured they will be carefully noted. If they become too restive in sufficient numbers then look out for the rapid reaction force.