Today there are reports that ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown thinks the News of the World may have hacked into his phone calls. Well Whoop-di-doop, Gordon, welcome to the 21st century.
In the late 1960s, I remember the London magazine Time Out reported that MI5 was listening in to all diplomatic telephone calls via a telephone exchange in (if memory serves me correctly) Kensington. A computer was scanning all calls and listening-in for keywords. This sounded very futuristic back then.
When the extremely right wing and, in my opinion, neo-Fascist Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he had no problem attempting to create profoundly anti-democratic laws. I remember one bright idea he had (never actually implemented) was to detain known football hooligans to prevent them going to a match if the police believed they might be thinking of perhaps planning to commit a crime. In other words he believed it would be OK to make Thought Crime an imprisonable offence.
Yet the one thing he was strangely opposed to throughout his Orwellian reign was allowing intercepts – phone taps – to be used in evidence in criminal trials. This continues to fascinate me. Why would he object?
He claimed that allowing intercepts to be used in evidence in open court would expose their origin. But, if we are talking about phone tap evidence, what is the problem?
Criminals know that anything they say on a telephone line may be legally and perfectly reasonably intercepted. They know that already. Everyone knows that. So saying in court that evidence has come from a wire tapped by the police or security services is not ‘revealing’ anything. It would only be revealing a hidden source if evidence had been collected and intercepted in some way other than from a wire tap… in which case, of course, the security services would not want to reveal that they had access to that unrevealed form of interception.
So what could that unrevealed and secret form of intercept be if it were not traditional phone tapping?
Telephones are two-way communication devices with built-in microphones. They are transmitters as well as receivers. You no longer need to install listening devices at telephone exchanges to tap phones. You can remotely make the microphones in the handsets active and thus listen in to anything said in a room. Most people have telephones in their living rooms and often their bedrooms; these can listen to and transmit anything said in the rooms. People with mobile phones not only carry transmitters with built-in microphones everywhere they go, but they are carrying GPS devices which can pinpoint their position to within a few feet.
But this is merely a variation on traditional eavesdropping. Would that really be why Tony Blair was so wary of the security services having to reveal in open court what their intercept sources might be?
I remember back in the late 1960s or early 1970s – certainly more than 30 years ago and before the really vast advances in computer development – a Cheltenham taxi driver called Barry Prime was tried in camera under the Official Secrets Act on charges which were never made public. The Sunday Times reported at the time he had told the Soviets that Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA had a satellite in (I think geostationary) orbit over the Soviet Union which could listen in to all above-ground communications – listening for keywords in all phone calls sent via the normal microwave system, walkie talkie calls, radio phone calls between, say, a Politburo member in his car and someone sitting in the Kremlin and possibly even a politician sitting in his office talking to his secretary on a wireless intercom. As a result, the Soviets buried all their sensitive communications in landlines, the West lost invaluable intelligence and Barry Prime was sentenced to a staggering number of years in jail (and seems to have been wiped from history and thus Google searches).
Journalist Duncan Campbell also got into trouble in 1985-1986 for revealing that GCHQ intended to launch a SigInt satellite called Zircon.
At one time, one of the words you were never supposed to speak on a telephone line in the UK was the word “Echelon” because it triggered all sorts of intelligence computers listening-in for keywords. Presumably if you mentioned “Echelon” AND “Burlington” AND “Turnstile” or even “Corsham”, then the eavesdropping computers would have had an orgasm of excitement. If, way back then, you had also mentioned “Stockwell”, “Site 3” and “Hawthorn“, then the Men in Black would probably have been sitting in a car outside your house the next day.
Modern satellites’ cameras can read the markings on the epaulettes of a soldier standing in a field outside Vladivostok or travelling in an open Jeep in Iraq. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that satellites which, more than 30 years ago, could listen in on all above-ground electronically-transmitted voice chatter can now listen-in to all human voice communication on a small area of the surface of the earth – let’s say the whole of the UK – and filter out bird song, traffic noises, water sounds etc to leave only the sounds created by human voices… and then to listen-in for keywords.
There was a saying in the late 1960s: “However paranoid you are, they’re always doing more than you think.”
What if any conversation on any street, in any room could be listened-in to by a satellite? What if anything you say out loud can be heard by the computers?
Plus ça change.
Though, in fact, I don’t object.
It’s a fact of modern British life.
The British public have no real objection to street security cameras. So why object to blanket voice surveillance? After all, it was us who created 1984 not some foreign johnny. All e-mails leaving or entering the UK are scanned; presumably all blogs are scanned; presumably everything on the World Wide Web is scanned because the Internet was originally a military project.
If Google can do it, then I certainly hope Echelon, GCHQ and the NSA can do it.
And let’s not even start to think about Google Street View.
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