In connection with the PRISM scandal, we should remember the Venona intercepts. Back in The Day, a number of broadcasts to Soviet agents in the US, Canada and the UK were intercepted and saved. They were in a code that was never completely broken but they were pondered over and over again, for years – decades – by Western intelligence agencies. Bit by bit parts of the messages were understood. But never completely; full understanding came only after the collapse of the USSR opened the original messages.
Those charged with the security of their country had better take this source of information seriously. The Enemy communicates. After 911 (and lots of it before, truth be known) all this stuff – ie everything – was vacuumed up and stored in case it had to be searched later. The PRISM data collection effort is, as it were, the gathering of a mountain of dross in which there may be a few nuggets of ore. John Smith’s phone calls (or yours) hold no interest today and there is no reason to take the enormous effort to look at them, but they might be later when we find out who he really is. Billions of phone calls, tweets, twitters, e-mails and everything else. It’s all out there, it’s all recordable, almost all of it is of no interest at all, but we don’t know today which is and which isn’t. So keep it all, because we can. Perhaps it might have been better to have explained the process openly at the beginning but intelligence organisations do have a bias towards secrecy.
Putin’s comments are carefully chosen and honest as far as they go. One can be quite certain that Spetssvyaz, the Russian signals intelligence organisation, is doing the same thing to the best of its abilities and budget. Putin said nothing that he will have to apologise for later. But he said nothing very informative either.
The point is that this stuff is all collected and stored and, maybe, later, a bit is looked at in detail, in theory, when a judge or other legal authority grants permission. In theory. The practice, of course could easily be different. Some rogue breaks into the database; security requirements are twisted into industrial espionage; the tax people want information on somebody the authorities don’t like; some other government authority – with, of course, the very best and purest of motives – needs to know something.
Contemporary technology allowed Sir Francis Walsingham to intercept only letters. But modern technology makes possible the collection of enormous amounts of information: he intercepted hundreds of letters; his successors intercept millions of tweets. Simply put: you either trust the authorities to make the correct judgement to look only at the bad guys or you don’t. There is no easy answer. If you trust the authorities to create the right safeguards, and follow them, you can sleep peacefully. If not, not; the future will tell whether you were right or wrong.
But the USA under Obama is not the only one doing this, and no one should be simple enough to think it is.