Prism: Who should we trust?

Prism: Who should we trust?

Prism: Who should we trust?

As odd as it may seem, I agree with the various statements that have been made over the last few days that the UK has some incredibly robust and sensible rules when it comes to intelligence gathering.  Of course I would like to see some tightening up, especially in terms of who has access and who should be permitted to authorise surveillance – and that this has to be adhered to.  I think that comes out in the fact that there haven’t been the kinds of huge leaks by disenfranchised individuals within the UK services.

But we don’t do enough to protect whistleblowers and we certainly could do more.


Whistleblowers have done more to protect the societies in which they live than most people realise, often at great cost to themselves and those around them.  Those that were identified are often not recognised as having done the right thing even years after their revelations.  At home and abroad, they have been ridiculed, ostracised, persecuted, prosecuted even exiled.

In the UK, the biggest political story of 2009, the MPs’ expenses scandal, came to light when a still unknown whistle-blower leaked four years worth of data on MP’s expense claims.  That leak included every receipt, every claim and even correspondence between MPs’ and fees office staff, and of course the whistle-blower was criticised – there were questions as to whether the law had been broken by the whistle-blower and the police were notified.  Yet the leak had been made and it had an almost immediate effect.

Not only did we see the resignation of six ministers, sackings, de-selections and early retirement announcements, but several members or former members of Parliament and the Lords were prosecuted and found guilty.

Possibly more importantly, the scandal created pressure for political reform, both related to expenses and to other parts of MPs’ public lives.  All in all, it is a leak that continues to have an impact on our political discourse.

Whistleblowing in the NHS (UK’s free at-the-point-of-need National Health Service) has unearthed a number of scandals too, again at great personal cost to the whistle-blowers.  The Scandal involving Mid Staffordshire Hospitals is the most recent and came to light when Elizabeth Clare, a nurse at the hospital, raised concerns.  Troublingly her concerns were ignored and the issues not addressed, and the worst possible outcome for a whistle-blower … “I put my neck on the line and as a result staff morale was still at an absolute low, and patient care hadn’t improved at all.”  NHS whistleblowing is vital, we need to know when there are problems in the delivery of healthcare.  Yet there have been allegations and evidence of the use of gagging orders to prevent just that.

It takes a lot for people to stand up and break ranks, especially when in doing so they might break the law, or at least break the letter of promises they have made to protect secrets.  When Katharine Gun received an e-mail from an official at the the US National Security Agency requesting aid in a secret and illegal operation to bug offices in the United Nations, she too felt she had no option but to leak the email.  The targets for this illicit bugging where the six nations whose support was needed for UN approval of the 2003 invasion of Iraq at the time when the US was pushing hard to be allowed to go to war.

These stories, from expenses, the NHS and arguments for war , as well as the many others, well known or not have been vital to our public debate.  They have changed public discourse and forced governments and companies to take action.  Their value in terms of abuses exposed and, indeed, lives saved either directly or by the response is incalculable.


Yet of course for the government, or those who are the target of whistle-blowers, there will be consequences.  It is one legacy of whistleblowing that the UK’s relationship with the US has become such a problem.  That relationship has done significant harm to the international reputation of the UK.  Evidence that the UK may have made use of information gathered through torture, was complicit in rendition or, as now, possibly made use of intelligence data, either commissioned or offered that is gathered in ways that the UK would not want, all first came to light through whistleblowers.

We should salute that; people have a right to know when their governments or allies act in ways that are not ethical.  We cannot allow conspiracies of silence to exist, even when the intention is, on the surface at least, intended to protect our way of life.  After all, our way of life is harmed irreparably when we compromise on our principles or allow others to do so on our behalf.  Our reputation won’t be preserved by preventing whistleblowing, whether that comes in the form of gagging orders, as with the NHS, or by legal threats like those that have been on the increase in the US under the leadership of President Obama.  It will be preserved by being open and accountable, especially when talking about activities whose details and specifics are necessarily secret.


When it comes to the most recent revelations there really is no excuse for a lack of openness.  In the UK we have had a wide ranging discussion on surveillance, civil liberties and monitoring.  That discussion has covered everything from ID cards to the Snoopers’ Charter (Communications Data Bill) and we decided that we don’t like it, that it doesn’t sit well with our principles.

We have been tainted by our previous associations and now is the right time to make it clear that the UK will not be involved in anything untoward.  It is not good enough simply to say that there is independent oversight but fail to be concrete about where and when it applies.  It would be good enough for a Minister to make it clear that we do not use mass surveillance or receive information from systems that do and that oversight applies to all information whether requested or dropped into our laps.

You might be mistaken for coming to the conclusion that that William Hague has already said that, but I am concerned by the qualifiers.  I am not entirely sure if the assurances that we have seen apply fully to how we could be receiving intelligence data, but there is an answer to that. The simplest way to allay most of the fears would be to make clear that when the UK obtains or is offered information by US agencies that it the same scrutiny is applies as if a UK agency had been intending to collect the information itself.

The other obvious concern to UK national interests, if the PRISM reporting is accurate, is that the is US an ally, but a competitor nonetheless and may have access to the data owned by British citizens without the kind of oversight that is supposed to be accorded to US citizens.

Maybe it is time for the US and UK, on the basis of our “special relationship” and intelligence sharing agreements to apply the same restrictions on our respective citizens.  Then of course the criticisms or suggestion that the UK can use the US to bypass UK law, or the UK to bypass US law would no longer be an issue.

In short, we cannot outsource ethics, or accountability.


It is true that I trust the UK government far more than I trust the US Government.  There are many reasons for that; past performance is one, but it’s also that I have a say in what the UK government does and can hold it to account to a certain extent… but even that trust has been eroded in recent years.  To rebuild that trust, the Government can and should make its position on the issues of snooping crystal clear, and whilst doing so should look to reinforce protections for whistleblowers.  After all, we owe it to those who risk so much yet often receive little more than accusations and anger in return.

Featured Picture: CC-BY-SA, D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons

This article is a guest editorial by Andy Halsall, the Campaigns Officer for PPUK.

Andy Halsall PPUK Campaign manager



I have spent most of the last 20 odd years enthusing about technology and wondering at both the pace of change and the possibilities that have arisen from it.  At the same time I have become more and more aware that in terms of legislative effort and even understanding, the various governments we have seen since the dawn of the ‘information age’ have been somewhat lacking.

As a result, I see the Pirate Party as an ideal vehicle for positive change in those areas where others have failed and where even now there is too little emphasis.  I feel that in areas such as patents and copyright law urgent change is needed, in areas such as net-neutrality there are serious risks to the freedoms we currently enjoy and have made such good use of, but I also think the Pirate Party can be a positive force in many areas of public life – we deserve change for the better.

I’ve worked with the party on a number of elections now, seeing improvements at each turn, both in results and in the way we have approached them and drove PPUK’s policy process in 2012, leading to the party broadening its political aims and helping to shape the principles that will allow us to be a credible force in British politics.  As to my background, I am a former soldier and now father of 4.  I grew up largely outside of the UK (Germany and Hong Kong mainly) and am probably somewhat odd in that I didn’t go to university (largely because I didn’t think I could afford it…), again something that I find probably shapes my world view.