On Privacy and Publicity

While reading Robert Tombs’ superlative The English and Their History, I came across the following sentence, describing Samuel Johnson’s and Richard Addison’s London: “The mix of commerce and culture produced what has been termed ‘the public sphere’ – places and institutions for exchanging information and forming opinion, which lay between the purely private world and the official realm”. What could be more representative of that sphere in twenty-first century Britain than the pages of Prospect magazine, ‘the leading magazine of ideas’, as it promotes itself?

The February issue of Prospect included an article that outlined what has to be done with technology – primarily that concerning the use of social networking – to keep the citizens of the UK safe while protecting their liberties. The following earnest and superficially innocuous paragraph caught my eye: “The big technology companies have a crucial role – and unique responsibility – in building the security that keeps us free and safe. We trust them in part because they are private. Co-operation is much preferable to legislation. The next step is for all parties to collaborate on a way forward to benefit from new technologies while doing what we can to stop those who would do us harm. This kind of co-operation between public and private sectors is needs in free societies where security underpins our privacy, private enterprise and liberal democracy.”

But this simply will not do. To begin with, this contrast of ‘the public sector’ and ‘the private sector’ is hopelessly naïve. Whereas a government (or its civil servants) may be said to represent the populace, there is no such entity as ‘the private sector’ that may be negotiated with. A free market consists of a number of competing entities trying to differentiate themselves. Politicians frequently display a very wooden understanding of how markets work: I recall David Cameron’s meetings with ‘industry leaders’ to discover what it is they need from government. But what today’s leading businesses want will be protection in some way from any upstarts who threaten their turf. The needs of the market are not the same as the needs of current market-leaders. (Think of Norwegian Airlines threatening the established transatlantic carriers.) The FBI made the same mistake in thinking it could negotiate with ‘Silicon Valley leaders’ as a method of resolving this problem of encrypted information on PDAs and cellphones. This echoed the policy of President Obama, who in 2015 made a point of trying to ‘cooperate’ personally with Silicon Valley on these issues. Just this week, Obama officials again met representatives from technology and entertainment companies (but not chief executives) to discuss ways of combating extremists on-line. They still do not get it. This is a matter of law – to be addressed either by an interpretation of existing laws, or by new legislation. Parliament, not parleys.

For example, had a similar advance been suggested to computer technology leaders twenty-five years ago, the list of vendors would have probably included IBM, ICL, Data General, DEC, Wang, Honeywell, Siemens-Nixdorf  . . .  Apart from IBM, where are they now? Apple is presumably the IBM of today, but there is no guarantee that the ‘big technology companies of today’  (e.g. Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Twitter and Buzzfeed? – my computer industry advisory panel supplied me with these names) will dominate in ten years’ time. How long ago were Nokia and Blackberry the leaders in personal networking, for example? So how can such a suggested initiative encompass the coming vendors of tomorrow? Schumpeterian creative destruction is always at work.

What’s more, it would be illegal. Since most of the companies affected are American, any move by such to meet to discuss shared endeavours would have to be considered under anti-trust legislation (something that should probably have taken affect with Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act, by the way.) For such companies to ‘collaborate’ with government to define pseudo-voluntary technology ‘standards’ (that would then be implemented at the whim of each company’s R & D design and implementation schedule) would be called for exactly what it is – conspiracy. And this aspect does not even touch the issue of whether such measures would be effective – which I shall not get into. This issue has been gaining intense attention in the past month, when Apple’s Tim Cook has again been assailed by the US Department of Justice. Cook has spoken out vigorously with the opinion that any back-door capabilities into a supplier’s encryption system would be abused by the bad guys. At the same time, Apple is planning for greater encryption of customers’ data in its ‘cloud’, which will make things even more difficult for law enforcement. (‘Ou sont les nuages d’antan?’) Yet in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on February 23, William J. Bratton and John J. Miller gave as their concluding argument for demanding that Apple should unlock its iPhone that Google and Apple ‘handle more than 90 percent of mobile communications worldwide’, and thus should be accountable for more than just sales. If such a rule does apply, it should apply to everyone.

So who is the supposed expert making this fanciful suggestion of bonhomous co-operation? Step forward, Sir John Sawers, ex-head of MI6, who indeed wrote the article. Not only that, Sawers advertises himself as having been ‘Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) between 2009 and 2014’, and his second paragraph reminds us immediately of his credentials: “As MI6 Chief, my top priority was identifying terror attacks against Britain planned from abroad.” Sawers is then described as being the Chairman of Macro Advisory Partners.

What in heaven’s name is the ex-head of MI6 doing exploiting his past career while claiming to be an independent consultant? And how can he suggest that his role therefore gives him some credibility in representing the requirements and desires of the ‘public’ sector? There cannot be a more private organisation than MI6, whose very existence was withheld from the British public until 1994, of which no archival material has been released after 1949 (the year where the authorised history stops), and whence any retiring head a decade or two ago would have quietly folded his tent, picked up his ‘K’ (although Sawers had that already), and shimmied off to Torquay to tend his geraniums and take up square-dancing. Now such persons write their memoirs – surely in contravention of the Official Secrets Act  ̶  and pontificate with the chattering classes in the press.

This dual role of subtly promoting MI6 connections and policy, and claiming to be an independent advisor, does not sit well with me. Can MI5 and MI6 not speak openly themselves about such policy? What do they think of this grandstanding and self-promotion, I wonder? Or has Sawers undergone some shift in position now that he has left his official intelligence hutch behind? If so, shouldn’t he describe what that is?

It gets worse, in a way. A quick search on the Web for Macro Advisory Partners shows that the firm has a Global Advisory Board of seven (see http://www.macroadvisorypartners.com/the-firm/global-advisory-board ), of whom the prominent names are Kofi Annan (seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations), David Milliband (of Labour Party renown, and now President and CEO, International Rescue Committee), and William J. Burns (President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an institute which regrettably sounds like one of those Soviet fronts of the late 1940s: indeed, the Soviet spy Alger Hiss was its President between 1946 and 1949.) I didn’t see Cherie Blair’s name there yet, but she is no doubt a very busy woman. Sawers was Britain’s permanent representative to the United Nations between 2007 and 2009, so he no doubt developed some good contacts then. But is he running the show, or he taking his advice from this group of Kumbaya do-gooders? How will his undoubted steeltrap mind have been affected by such company? No wonder his recommendation for solving the technology problem is to get everyone around a table in peace talks.

I believe this is all highly irregular. Sawers surely has a pension that he can live off comfortably: he does not need this jump into the ‘private’ sector, where, ironically he can be much more expansive about his ideas than he was when working for the government. The undoubted impression that casual readers will gain from this promotional journalism is that there is some consistency in MI6 policy from the Sawers regime to the current set-up. That must make it very difficult for the present leaders of MI6 – and MI5, of course – to develop policy and work it through the normal processes, dealing with this distracting noise in the media. If they agree with what Sawers says, are they admitting that they are likewise influenced by pollyannaish internationalist wishful thinkers, instead of by steely pragmatism? And if they disagree with him, what does that say about continuity of purpose and perspective within MI6? It is all very messy, and, in the jargon of today ‘unhelpful’. Sawers should not have been allowed to exploit his past experience for monetary gain, and should have been prevented from entering the public sphere in this way: his employers should have insisted on a more stringent termination agreement.

Lastly, all this reinforces the unhealthiness of the transfer of careers between government and industry, and also demonstrates how absurd the UK Honours System is. ‘Captains of industry’, managing directors of private companies publically traded, should be looking after the interests of their shareholders. They do not provide ‘services to the industry’, for which gongs are awarded.  In addition, they have their own generous rewards, being almost without exception overcompensated by crony boards of directors, and remunerated handsomely even if they fail. Public ‘servants’ (who all too often act as if they were our masters) should be expected to perform their jobs well: if they do not, they should be fired. And when they retire from highly-important positions, they should do exactly that – retire.

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Readers who followed my representation to the New York Times in my December blog may be interested to know of the follow-up. Having gained no satisfaction from the Public Editor (Margaret Sullivan), I wrote an email to the Executive Editor, and then one to the CEO, Mark Thompson. These attempts having resulted in not even an acknowledgment, I then sent a letter to Mr. Thompson, with a copy to the publisher, Mr. Sulzberger. Again, I have failed to extract even an acknowledgment from either gentleman. Did Mr. Thompson learn such manners at Merton College, I wonder?

I have since challenged the Public Editor on the Times’s somewhat irregular decision to give Madeleine Albright the opportunity to explain away her Clinton election campaign gaffe (about women supporting other women lest they go to hell) in an Op-Ed column. Again, no reply. And then, Ms. Sullivan announced earlier this week that she was leaving the position early to join the Washington Post. Am I entitled to imagine that perhaps she became frustrated in dealing with the bizarre journalistic principles at the Times, and that the paper’s failure to act on my complaint pushed her over the edge? (‘Dream on, buster.’ Ed.) As for Mr. Thompson, he left a mess behind at the BBC, and I expect further messes at the Times. This week, the paper ran a story about the post-mortem at the BBC over the matter of protected ‘stars’ like Jimmy Savile, who were allowed to get away with sexual malpractices in a corporate culture of fear at a time when Mr. Thompson was Director-General of the BBC (2004 to 2012). Mr. Thompson’s responsibility for that culture – or even the fact that he led the organisation –  was omitted from the article.

In conclusion, I highlight an item from this month’s Commonplace entries, taken from Hugh Trevor-Roper’s waspish Wartime Journals: “The Christ Church manner, that assumption of effortless superiority, is said to be galling to those who weren’t at Christ Church. But we can’t expect the world to be run for the benefit of those who weren’t at Christ Church.” Indeed.  Stop looking shifty, Thompson.                                            (February 29, 2016)

1 Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, Politics, Technology

One Response to On Privacy and Publicity

  1. Thanks, it was a good read.

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