Spies, terrorists and an undercover ham sandwich

I am trying very hard to understand why everyone is shocked — shocked! — by news that the US government helps itself to the massive data flows generated by Google, Facebook and Twitter. I have always assumed that something placed into an internet database is no more secret than something written in a letter. We all know that those pop-up advertisements — so amazingly compatible with what we searched for on Facebook ten minutes ago — aren’t there by accident. But if we aren’t bothered when ruthlessly efficient multinational corporations troll through our data in order to earn billions for their teenage CEOs, why are we bothered when the comparatively inept US government does the same while searching for terrorists?
I reckon my own Gmail correspondence is kept relatively safe by two things: greed — and boredom. It’s in Google’s commercial interest to protect my account from thieves, because otherwise I will stop using it. Also, it would be too dull to read my email, or almost anyone’s email, for any other purpose. As for Facebook, you might as well post it all on a motorway billboard and be done with it.
Still, it seems we have to let this scandal unfold, at least until the next Boston bomber or Woolwich axe murderer, at which point there will be a call for a greater government ‘crackdown’ on terrorists, who — like everyone else — seem perfectly happy to communicate their secret views to all and sundry on the internet. Dzhokar Tsarnaev (the younger, nicer, apparently secular and well-integrated Boston bomber) posted links on his Facebook page to web pages with titles like ‘Salamworld, my religion is Islam’ and ‘There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts.’ Just two weeks ago, Theresa May bragged that 5,500 similarly ‘radical items’ had been taken off the internet because ‘we cannot stand by and let people whip up violent hatred of Britain’. Everyone nodded their approval. But how did the British government find those 5,500 radical items? By typing ‘violent hatred of Britain’ into the Google search function?
I do realise that as the author of a book called Iron Curtain I’m expected to be far more paranoid about the encroachment of the state into everyday life (and yes, since you asked, the paperback came out last week). Whenever I speak about Iron Curtain in public, somebody will eventually raise his hand and ask whether the book is a subtle commentary on Obama’s America/the European Union. To the intense disappointment of the questioner, I explain that the book is not, in fact, an extended metaphor. It really is about Stalinism in the 1940s. I’ll change my mind when the government’s political opponents are routinely arrested, beaten and imprisoned without trial, when newspaper editors, scoutmasters and symphony conductors can only be appointed with the approval of the Dear Leader, and when public gymnastics displays with embarrassing nationalist overtones become de rigueur, even without the Olympics.
But all scandals have their uses. Perhaps this one will persuade us to abandon for ever the ridiculous idea that the US government is good at keeping secrets. Also the ludicrous belief that the internet in general and social media in particular are forces for good — or even that they represent anything especially new. As it happens, I spent a couple of days this week in Brora, a Scottish fishing village which boasts, alongside its pristine golf course and some magnificent empty beaches, an abandoned government listening post. During the second world war, this unassuming concrete building was full of people listening to Germans. After that, it was full of people listening to Russians — and maybe others. An informative sign explains that its employees once referred to the Brora station as ‘the Gulag Archipelago’, a presumably jocular allusion to its remote location. Shortwave radio was the Facebook of its time; the Brora ‘Gulag Archipelago’ the PRISM of its era.
For various reasons, I have had to make three short trips in the past ten days. First I flew to Budapest, then to Warsaw. The third and by far the most exotic trip was to Inverness. The flight was surprisingly long, the airport surprisingly deserted. The northern light, bright and sharp at 9 p.m., was nothing like the soft English dusk. There was hardly a car on the road and hardly any food when we arrived. In fact, there was no food at all. In the Scottish Highlands, very unlike Budapest, nobody serves anything, not even takeaway fish and chips, after 9 p.m. Finally, a pub waitress furtively conjured up a ham sandwich, and slipped it to us under the bar. This, not the internet, is why I still have faith in human nature: even in the harshest cultures, dissidents are always prepared to break the rules — and suffer the consequences — in the name of humanity and the greater good.