November 08, 2013

Anyway, What's National Security For?

Writing about web page http://isc.independent.gov.uk/files/20131107_ISC_uncorrected_transcript.pdf

Yesterday the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee met the chiefs of Britain’s three intelligence agencies. Among other matters, they debated the price we should be willing to pay for national security. I was interested by how this quickly turned into a debate over the meaning of national security itself. There were unexpected differences among legislators and spies; the spies themselves did not speak with one voice. (Here's the uncorrected transcript.)

Hazel Blears, a Labour MP and former local government minister, who is also an ISC committee member, offered up the conventional formula that might be most appealing to an economist:

I wonder if you would agree that in order to have the trust and confidence of the nation, which provides a strong platform for your work, that it is important that we again look at the balance between privacy and security.

She was saying, in other words, that privacy and security are competing objectives of government, and we have to balance them, or trade one against the other. The slope of the "trade-off" is then the price. If we want more security we may end up with less privacy, so the price of security is the amount of privacy foregone. Do we have the right balance? Or, are we paying too much for security in lost privacy? It’s hard to say; we’ll come back to that.

Here’s what was said by Sir Iain Lobban (GCHQ):

I believe a government's first duty is to protect its people. Some ways that it does that I think are necessarily secret. I don't think "secret" means "unaccountable" in any sense, and I think the Foreign Secretary, certainly appointed by an elected government, authorises our operations. There is a Parliamentary Committee which gives us plenty of oversight. There is also the two Commissioners, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, who the Chief mentioned earlier.

In these words Lobban said something different from Blears. For him, government has a list of priorities. Security (meaning “to protect its people”) comes first. Everything else comes after. In this perspective there is no balance (or “trade-off”). First, achieve security; privacy comes after. Where it comes (second, third, fourth, etc.) is up to the government and the scrutineers. In case you might think I'm overinterpreting, Lobban went on later to say exactly this:

I don't particularly like talking about the privacy and security balance because I think it is a false choice. I think our job is to provide intelligence around security which enables security in a way which safeguards privacy to the maximum extent possible.

In other words, you can have as much privacy as is left to be had -- after you have ticked security off the list, and security comes first. I don't want to make this sound too bad. Lobban also said other things that, if you believe them (and I have no particular reason not to) are quite reassuring, for example:

[GCHQ] can only look at the content of communications where there are very specific legal thresholds and requirements which have been met. So that is the reality. We don't want to delve into innocent e-mails and phonecalls. I feel I have to say this: I don't employ the type of people who would do. My people are motivated by saving the lives of British forces on the battle field, they are motivated by fighting terrorists/serious criminals, by meeting that foreign intelligence mission as well. If they were asked to snoop, I would not have the workforce. They would leave the building.

Now, here’s the contribution of Andrew Parker (MI5):

I think fundamentally, the raison d'etre of an organisation like MI5 is to protect the sort of country we live in against threats to it. The sort of country we live in is a free society, a democracy, a country where we do prize our individual liberty and privacy. Those values are extremely important to all of the men and women who work in our Agencies, who are members of the public, who live in communities and don't want to live in a surveillance society or a North Korea. They want to live in a country like this. Our job is to keep it that way.

Here Parker took a third line, different from that of either Blears or Lobban. In his view the purpose of security is not to protect persons, or even the people (as Lobban had it) and the price of security is not privacy (as Blears said). Rather, the aim should be to secure “a free society.” Because privacy is one of the characteristics of a free society, he implied, security and privacy are not in conflict; security that infringes on privacy is not security.

To repeat, for Lobban, security and privacy are not in conflict because security comes first. To Parker, security and privacy are not in conflict because privacy is part of a free society and a free society is what must be secured.

Of these three views I have most sympathy, by far, with the third – the "Parker view" that the ultimate mission of national security is to protect the institutions of a free society and democracy. In too many countries the mission of national security has been to protect the incumbent government and repress dissent. Consider the things that distinguish our own society from the settings in which the KGB or Gestapo held sway. Aren’t the most important of these the democracy that allows us (as voters) to toss out the government if we wish and our freedom (as private persons) to be the people we want, say what we believe, and associate with whom we choose?

But this is only the beginning of the problem. Intrusive mass surveillance in the hands of a bloated security apparatus seems unlikely to protect democracy or freedom. If we seriously want to protect free speech and free association, we should uphold limits on surveillance. Inevitably, then, we will incur some risk that a few bad people will successfully exploit free speech and free association to do bad things to some of us. So there is still a trade-off here, but the balance we have to strike as a society is not between security and privacy. It is between two kinds of security: the security of our freedoms and of our physical persons.

Hazel Blears captured this difficult point quite nicely:

You [the intelligence agencies] are currently under some criticism for knowing too much. If there is a terrorist incident, no doubt you will be under criticism for knowing too little. It is a rock and a hard place.

In other words it is questionable whether the mission of national security as safeguarding our way of life, not our persons, is politically viable in the long run, when all the bad (and good) luck has come in. It’s easy to agree beforehand that we should tolerate a few risks. It’s much harder to maintain that after the event, when lives have been lost as a result. At the very least, clear leadership is required. That’s a tough one, especially for politicians and security chiefs who do not want another 9/11 or 7/7 on their watch. In other words freedom carries risks, and may call for a little courage from time to time.


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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  • Thanks Tony! by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • A very good read, Mark. I hope you write more of these! by Tony Addison on this entry
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  • Mark, An excellent piece and great rebuttal. Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat … by Mark Allen on this entry
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