Model of GCHQ/Flickr Creative Commons - Frankie Roberto

UK politicians locked horns last week over ex-CIA analyst Edward Snowden's revelations about the extent of NSA and GCHQ surveillance, debating the morality of his actions and the potential fallout from the documents he leaked to the Guardian – and exposing the tension between privacy and security in a democratic society.   

In a series of email exchanges published in the Guardian, IISS Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, Nigel Inkster, and civil rights campaigner, Shami Chakrabarti, debate the ‘rights and wrongs’ of exposing the secret surveillance practices of intelligence agencies.

Chakrabarti takes issue with the notion that those with ‘nothing to hide have nothing to fear’, arguing that ‘personal privacy is … essential to dignity, intimacy and trust between people’. She points out that covert surveillance could be abused by law enforcers to ‘justify spying on those who expose state abuse alongside those who threaten national security’.

Inkster agrees that ‘unchecked snooping’ is unacceptable – but that the furore over the issue has been misplaced. He argues that newspaper headlines about NSA revelations obscure the fact that intelligence agencies have gone to ‘extraordinary lengths’ to ensure they don’t abuse their surveillance powers, pointing out that the 60,000 emails of US nationals that were erroneously accessed represented around 0.00000000062% of global email traffic.

Chakrabarti says that while she has great respect for police and intelligence professionals, she is concerned that the surveillance programmes were developed ‘around or outside statute’. Inkster asserts that there needs to be a debate about big data and what privacy means, now that people live so much of their lives online, and concludes that ‘the great thing about a democracy is that we can have this debate – and try to fix things if they turn out to be unsatisfactory’.

Read the full exchange in the Guardian.

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