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A house of cards

The heads of the main UK Intelligence Agencies are all giving evidence to Parliament today, on camera for the first time. The fact that this has as of yet not happened demonstrates how obsolete the UK’s oversight regime is. The UK political establishment revels in its historical traditions, but this can result in archaic proceedings, stuck in another century, refusing to move forward with the modern era. With a time delay (allegedly a few minutes, but possibly 20 years), we get to view the stream of the third debate in three weeks. Whether it’s more like the first monologue, or the second sideshow remains to be seen. It makes for interesting TV, but it’s not primetime drama.

[Spoiler alert ahead for those fans of award-winning political dramas]

Fiction, technology, and government

Sometimes, one needs to look to contemporary fiction in order to understand the world around us; other times, stories from years ago give us insight into the past and help us track societal changes. If you take a look at the UK ‘House of Cards’, which debuted in 1990, and the recent US remake, it shows a gulf between the then-and-now worlds that government officials live in, especially how the internet and modern communications have remade the world. Looking closer, it also shows how pervasive surveillance has become.

In 1990, conversations with Francis Urquhart were mostly in the corridors of the House of Commons, quick words as people walk, longer conversations in alcoves. In 2013, many of those conversations are by text. Today, it’s no surprise to see text message conversations popping up on screen, it’s a part of life everywhere, from Wassenaar to Washington. Frank using a blackberry to send messages to Zoe's iPhone mean that all those texts were going over the air, unencrypted. Those once private conversations in corridors can now be easily captured by any government snoops.

In terms of the biggest shocks in the series, there is no doubt that contemporary surveillance measures would make them play out differently. In 1990, Francis Urquhart throws a journalist off the roof of UK Parliament, while in 2013 Frank Underwood murders a drunk Congressman in his parking garage.

While there were no CCTV cameras on the roof in Parliament 23 years ago (there are now), nowadays with advanced surveillance capabilities surely Congressman Underwood would get nabbed. But even with mobile phone and email tracking and cameras in a parking garage, the Majority Whip and VP-designate, with many agencies undoubtedly interested in looking into his communications, was able to get away with murdering a fellow Congressman.

What this tells us is that even with all the surveillance technologies at the government’s disposal of 2013, the same story can be told in pretty much the same way. The criminals adapted, the methods of communications advanced, but the capabilities of the surveillance regime, not so much.

Truth indeed is always stranger than fiction though. We found out last week that the Luxembourg Intelligence Agency had cards on 300,000 people, out of a population of 520,000, as "Anyone who wasn’t strictly conservative was considered a threat to the state" . The Conservative Urquhart may have escaped that definition, but the Democrat Francis Underwood would likely have been caught. One of the causes of the Luxembourg Government collapse was the revelation that the head of an Agency had recorded conversations with the Prime Minister on a microphone hidden in a watch.

A Monologue

"How should a democracy defend itself in peacetime?" asked David Winnick when the law covering GCHQ was being debated in 1994 (p54). He didn’t get a response at the time, but the UK Government finally gave him one: a monologue, where only the government talks and you listen without any questions.

The actions of the Agencies are opaque, but the actions of Government ministers and Parliamentarians are far more visible. What can we expect today? Talking for 30 minutes, yet saying nothing new after 3 months. Why is there still no Government justification for these extreme acts of surveillance? Could it be because Government can not justify it? 

You might very well think that; interested MPs couldn't possibly comment - the Government silenced them.