Leaders: GCHQ’s actions | Iain Banks

Have your say

WHAT is the nature and extent of the information on UK citizens being obtained through the United States Prism spy programme?

How has it come by that information? And has the UK’s eavesdropping centre GCHQ been able to circumvent the formal legal process here by obtaining personal data on UK citizens through deals with the US?

These are questions of public importance. Given the implications, the response so far of Foreign Secretary William Hague has fallen well short of candour, and many will have objected to the somewhat cavalier tone adopted in media interviews when these concerns were put to him. He says “law-abiding” citizens have “nothing to fear”; that claims of circumvention by GCHQ were “nonsense” and that it would “defeat the object” to reveal how GCHQ or the security services work, because it would help terrorist networks, criminal networks and foreign intelligence agencies.

Under such Orwellian circular logic, it is a wonder we have even been told about the existence of GCHQ at all, never mind the nature and extent of the personal information it is apparently now able to gather on our behalf without the customary legal protocols.

It is barely a fortnight since a British soldier was brutally hacked to death in broad daylight in a suburban street in south London. This horrific attack led to immediate calls for tighter surveillance and information-gathering on the movements and activities of known terrorist suspects.

But the problem facing the authorities here is as it has always been: how to develop an appropriate and proportionate response and how to ensure scrutiny and surveillance can be undertaken in a way that does not undermine our commitment to a democratic system that rests on a respect for the privacy of citizens.

Several questions immediately attend claims that GCHQ had access to the US Prism spy programme. This is said to give government agencies easy access to the systems of the world’s biggest internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. All deny giving the US government access to their servers. So how has access been obtained? If GCHQ is able to secure such information gathered from outwith the UK, of what value are the legal and regulatory safeguards here?

Few would question the legitimacy of obtaining such information of known terrorist suspects. But there is a strong suspicion here of a virtual carte blanche for the security services to build files on every UK citizen. No less concerning is how safe such information would be in the hands of government departments. In recent years there have been several worrying cases of private information being mislaid or stolen while in government custody.

The Foreign Secretary has promised a statement to parliament today. We hope this will be more forthcoming, and delivered with more thought than has been shown so far.

Tragic loss of a talented writer

A life cut short; a talent curtailed; an audience bereft. Author Iain Banks was one of Scotland’s most talented and versatile writers whose books achieved international esteem and popularity. That his life has ended at just 59 when, in Robert Frost’s words, he had “miles to go before I sleep” is a cruel reminder of how, despite massive medical advances, cancer is an unsparing, and in this case, mercilessly swift killer.

The writer had been told he had terminal cancer just two months ago. Indeed, the most recent prognosis he had been given indicated that he had another two months of life. He was denied even that.

Best known for novels such as The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, Iain Banks had a rare dexterity of being able to write both mainstream and science fiction novels with fluency and distinction. His story-telling skills, combined with the liveliest imagination and gift for gothic humour, were reflected in an enormous readership.

The Wasp Factory, published in 1984, was ranked as one of the best 100 books of the 20th Century in a 1997 poll conducted by book chain Waterstone’s and Channel 4. Thus the description by his publishers that he was “one of the country’s best-loved novelists” is no hyperbole.

As for his fortitude, there can surely be no doubt. The suddenness of his decline makes the completion of his final book and the delivery of the manuscript to his publisher’s just weeks before his death a tremendous act of courage and dedication.

The book, entitled The Quarry, details the physical and emotional strain of the final weeks of a cancer victim and will be released on 20 June.