GCHQ has traveled a long and winding road. That road stretches from the wooden huts of Bletchley Park, past the domes and dishes of the Cold War, and on towards what some suggest will be the omniscient state of the Brave New World. As we look to the future, the docile and passive state described by Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World is perhaps more appropriate analogy than the strictly totalitarian predictions offered by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Bizarrely, many British citizens are quite content in this new climate of hyper-surveillance, since its their own lifestyle choices that helped to create 'wired world' - or even wish for it, for as we have seen, the new torrents of data have been been a source of endless trouble for the overstretched secret agencies. As Ken Macdonald rightly points out, the real drives of our wired world have been private companies looking for growth, and private individuals in search of luxury and convenience at the click of a mouse. The sigint agencies have merely been handed the impossible task of making an interconnected society perfectly secure and risk-free, against the background of a globalized world that presents many unprecedented threats, and now has a few boundaries or borders to protect us. Who, then, is to blame for the rapid intensification of electronic surveillance? Instinctively, many might reply Osama bin Laden, or perhaps Pablo Escobar. Others might respond that governments have used these villains as a convenient excuse to extend state control. At first glance, the massive growth of security, which includes includes not only eavesdropping but also biometric monitoring, face recognition, universal fingerprinting and the gathering of DNA, looks like a sad response to new kinds of miscreants. However, the sad reality is that the Brave New World that looms ahead of us is ultimately a reflection of ourselves. It is driven by technologies such as text messaging and customer loyalty cards that are free to accept or reject as we choose. The public debate on surveillance is often cast in terms of a trade-off between security and privacy. The truth is that luxury and convenience have been pre-eminent themes in the last decade, and we have given them a much higher priority than either security or privacy. We have all been embraced the world of surveillance with remarkable eagerness, surfing the Internet in a global search for a better bargain, better friends, even a better partner.
GCHQ vast new circular headquarters is sometimes represented as a 'ring of power', exercising unparalleled levels of surveillance over citizens at home and abroad, collecting every email, every telephone and every instance of internet acces. It has even been asserted that GCHQ is engaged in nothing short of 'algorithmic warfare' as part of a battle for control of global communications. By contrast, the occupants of 'Celtenham's Doughnut' claim that in reality they are increasingly weak, having been left behind by the unstoppable electronic communications that they cannot hope to listen to, still less analyse or make sense of. In fact, the frightening truth is that no one is in control. No person, no intelligence agency and no government is steering the accelerating electronic processes that may eventually enslave us. Most of the devices that cause us to leave a continual digital trail of everything we think or do were not devised by the state, but are merely symptoms of modernity. GCHQ is simply a vast mirror, and it reflects the spirit of the age.
Richard J. Aldrich (GCHQ)