Half of Germany was hanging on Barack Obama’s every word when the US President told the German public on prime-time TV that he intended to continue mass surveillance in the future. Media reporting on the Snowden revelations has focused largely on the American NSA, the political reactions in the USA and the proposed mini-reforms. The NSA’s not-so-small brother in the UK – Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ – has wrongly disappeared from the centre of attention.
The electronic snooping service of the former British Empire developed out of a famous group of code breakers based at Bletchley Park, the UK’s intelligence service headquarters, who had successfully attacked the encryption systems of the Axis powers during the Second World War. For Britain, the successful deciphering of Germany’s Enigma cipher machines was decisive for the outcome of the War. Being able to read the encrypted messages of the German Navy was a major factor in breaking Nazi Germany’s submarine blockade of the island nation, which was almost completely dependent on shipping for its supplies. Alan Turing, one of the greatest mathematical talents of the twentieth century and the godfather of artificial intelligence, played a crucial role in the process.
Bletchley Park and GCHQ was always shrouded in secrecy. The British Official Secrets Act is much more restrictive than its equivalent in the United States. Parts of Bletchley Park’s history are still officially kept secret, even though decades have passed. Only recently could the Queen bring herself to officially rehabilitate Alan Turing, who was prosecuted, chemically castrated and discriminated against after the War because of his homosexuality and died young. Not exactly the traditional way a nation expresses its gratitude.
Astonishingly creative and brazen
Many of the secrecy regulations that were introduced at the time of the Second World War are essentially still in force today. The intelligence services and military can even exert direct influence on press coverage under what amounts to pre-democratic regulations. Public debate on the extent of surveillance and the role of the intelligence services has been stifled by so-called DA-Notices, in which the government tells editors-in-chief what they must not report – under threat of prosecution. As a result, the debate on the Snowden revelations has made little progress in the UK, apart from the articles published in the Guardian newspaper.
Even today, when it comes to surveillance by the intelligence services there is neither any effective recourse to the courts, nor any significant monitoring. Yet GCHQ in particular is astonishingly creative and brazen, engaging in snooping activities on a scale bordering on imperial megalomania. The Tempora program stores and analyses several days of the entire internet traffic that crosses the UK – and this also includes a large percentage of Europe’s transatlantic connections.