Tiffany Jenkins: Privacy at heart of British values

MI5 director general Andrew Parker is now a public figure, not a shadowy letter at the heart of a secret service web, but his calls for surveillance are siren calls. Picture: PA
MI5 director general Andrew Parker is now a public figure, not a shadowy letter at the heart of a secret service web, but his calls for surveillance are siren calls. Picture: PA
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CARLYLE’S words of 1844 are every bit as true today, but are under increasing challenges, writes Tiffany Jenkins

In 1844, long before the internet and apps were invented, the British state was opening and reading private letters sent via Royal Mail, and the first modern panic about privacy erupted, triggered by poppy seeds, strands of hair and fine grains of sand.

A few years earlier the introduction of the pre-paid, flat rate Penny Post had democratised correspondence. For a tiny expense, personal letters could be sent back and forth, faster than ever before. It was a slower version of e-mail, but perhaps more revolutionary. Communication sped up exponentially, creating a new sense of time. It also contributed to an expanding private sphere.

The British state started to open the mail sent through the post office addressed to Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile in London who supported founding an Italian republic, following a request by the Austrian ambassador, who was worried that insurrections in Italy would spark revolutions across Europe. Mazzini suspected something was up, so he sent himself envelopes, inside which he placed poppy seeds, hair and grains of sand, sealing them with wax. When they arrived, no trace could be found of the seeds, hair or sand. The envelopes were empty.

The MP Thomas Duncombe petitioned parliament for the interception to end. A political scandal broke. Victorian society was outraged. Commentators defended Mazzini’s privacy – and that of all English men. They argued that the state should not be acting in this way, especially on behalf of a foreign government, and that privacy was inviolable right. The historian David Vincent explains in his book The Culture of Secrecy that privacy was understood to be a British value. It was associated with British national identity. Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle came to Mazzini’s defence, writing in a national newspaper: “It is a question vital to us that sealed letters in an English post office be, as we all fancied they were, respected as things sacred.”

Another establishment figure, Thomas Denman, the Lord Chief Justice, challenged the home secretary: “He [Lord] Denman should like to know the feelings of any secretary of state when he first found himself in the execution of his duty, opening a private letter, becoming the depository of the secrets of a private family, becoming acquainted with circumstances of which he would wish to be ignorant, meeting an individual in society, and knowing that he was in possession of secrets dearer to him than his life.”

The home secretary, a Tory baronet, disagreed with the accusations of impropriety. The Mazzini surveillance was justified, he said, because it was in the interests of the safety of the nation, which faced internal and external threats. And there were threats. This was the era of the working class movement of Chartism. Working men wanted and fought to get the vote and political reforms.

The Mazzini affair should remind us that the state has always tried to surveil the public. It has always pushed to read what people write to each other in private. It has always talked up risks to it, which have existed. It also shows how weak the defence of privacy has become. Unimaginable today is that comparable establishment figures would defend privacy with the same conviction and support as they did in Victorian times. Privacy is no longer sacred.

This week, for the first time in history, the head of the M15, Andrew Parker, was interviewed live on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. The identity of the MI5 head used to be so secret that they were referred to only as M. Such was the secrecy about the secret services, until the 1980s the existence of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ was not officially acknowledged. Now, they have a statutory existence. Who heads them and from where they operate is public knowledge.

Mr Parker said that the current threat level in Britain is “severe”. This means the intelligence agencies believe a terror attack to be highly likely. He said some 3,000 “potentially violent extremists” are being monitored and that six attacks have been foiled in the past year. The challenge of tackling terrorists was, MI5 said in a statement, increasingly tricky in the online world. Although it could identify suspects, “getting access to what they are planning is far more difficult than in the past”. Mr Parker argued that social media companies therefore had an “ethical responsibility” to share information with the state.

Mr Parker’s radio appearance has come just weeks before the government is due to bring a new investigatory powers bill before parliament. The bill is expected to outline how intelligence agencies are allowed to operate and was controversial when first proposed a couple years ago. Published in 2013, the Draft Communications Data Bill became known as the “snooper’s charter” because it set out to grant the state intrusive powers to compel the storage and disclosure of digital-communications data.

The day after Mr Parker’s interview, his comments were supported by the same newspaper that had carried and endorsed Carlyle’s remarks in the mid 19th century. A leader this week concluded that consumers should “explicitly accept that privacy is not an absolute right”, and that “the threat to life trumps the threat to privacy”. How things have changed, for the worse.

The proposed measures expected in the bill are disproportionate and counterproductive. Whilst encryption is a challenge for the authorities, it is also vital for our privacy. Not just to conceal bank details, or confidential legal advice, but so we can communicate without being monitored. So we can write to each other without the state reading our business.

The battle with terrorists is not about finding and targeting the bad guys with a drone. It’s about winning over those who are tempted to join them to our way of life. And that means believing in it ourselves. In democracy. In privacy. Privacy may no longer be a British value, but it should be.