Don't Worry About The Government: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes

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The phrase ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you’ has become something of a hoary old cliché. But for UK MPs, the phrase has a very contemporary and relevant meaning. Someone is out to get them; someone rather close to their House.

If one does talk about paranoia in the security industry, it probably won’t be long before someone mentions the name of John McAfee. While certainly no spring chicken, the adjective old seems very inappropriate. He’s rather more roary than hoary, and never ever clichéd. Any paranoia he has is almost certainly well placed.

The security guru, for he truly is, enjoys what you may call a reputation. Only a few weeks ago as he addressed a special gathering at Infosecurity Europe 2015, McAfee let rip with both barrels on the pernicious effects governments were having on private lives. In a fascinating interview McAfee slammed what he regards as relentless corporate and government surveillance.

And while probably no fan of the aforementioned UK MPs, nor indeed of governments in general anywhere, he may agree with any sense of paranoia they may have following the news that the UK’s intelligence agencies have potentially been operating unlawful surveillance practices. Covering, covertly, their own electronic communications.

Now the concept of the UK’s elected representatives being under surveillance is nothing new. As recently as the 1990s, the communications of Sinn Fein MPs were regularly monitored on the justification of state security. Yet these and any similar actions adhered to what is known as the Wilson doctrine, named after the former prime minister, which decrees that MPs are free to go about their duties outside the scrutiny of state security services and can only have communications monitored after a public declaration of justification by the standing prime minister.

If MPs are indeed being monitored without their knowledge and indeed consent, there’s something of a delicious irony about this. A large number of them were the very people who have voted on giving the UK’s security services more or less carte blanche to view the private messages of citizens. Yet no matter whether Conservative or Labour, an aye to the left or a no to the right, the realization has just dawned on MPs that the dragnet of the security apparatus now includes them.

But it is this nation’s saving grace that such blanket inspection is being challenged by at least some MPs. In a sitting of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) – a UK body set up to investigate complaints about conduct by various public bodies, in relation to people, their property or communications – lawyers acting for a number of outraged MPs are demanding to know whether the UK security services are acting within their set remits, and indeed under the terms if not spirit of the Wilson doctrine. Somewhat alarmingly, not just whether they eavesdropped on MPs’ communications but if they did so without informing the prime minister.

Some MPs are adamant that this could be the case. The Guardian newspaper quoted Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas and former Bradford West MP George Galloway as arguing that there was a strong likelihood that their communications were intercepted sometime between 2012 and 2014 as a consequence of the surveillance programs exposed by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

This is certainly one to monitor, so to speak. Well if one can.

One can also only imagine what McAfee thinks of all this. Presciently, as he spoke at Infosecurity Europe 2015 weeks before the state snooping came to light, he said: “First and foremost we have to take responsibility for our own lives – we can’t expect the government to keep us secure… We have to take responsibility for our own security before we can change the government… Protection is not something the government offers.” As a lot of its own constituent members would now certainly attest.

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