I’m taking a wild guess here, but I reckon that little camera on your computer or phone is not covered up by black tape. I also suspect that, were I to look up your house on Google Street View, I’d be able to see it clearly, and not be confronted by a fuzzed-out blur. And, pushing my luck, my guess is that when the census form plopped on to the doormat of a Briton in 2011, one had duly filled it in and sent it back.
If you were German, on the other hand, I’d adjust my expectations. There, I learned this week, it’s quite common for a suggested Skype video chat to founder on the discovery that your friend blocked up the little eye on their laptop long ago. Once it emerged, via Edward Snowden, that the snoopers of the National Security Agency (NSA) had access to supposedly encrypted Skype calls, Germans reached for the duct tape. They wanted Big Brother to wear a blindfold. The same goes for Google’s Street View. There were a few refuseniks in Britain when cars with roof-mounted cameras started patrolling the streets, snapping everyone’s house. But click on to the average Acacia Avenue and the homes are all there, clear and visible. Choose a similarly random address in Germany, however, and there are as many houses blurred out as left on show. Saying no to the information behemoth that is Google was not a maverick gesture in Germany, but mainstream. As for the census, when EU rules demanded that Germany count its people in 2011 — for the first time in 30 years — there were howls of protest at such heavy-handed government intrusion. It’s not really like that in Britain.
Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, published her draft bill on communications surveillance last week and it hardly sent the masses on to the streets. Liberty sounded the alarm, so did the Guardian, and Nick Clegg aired his worries about Government Communication Headquarters’ ability “to hack anything from handsets to whole networks”, the bulk storage of records showing every website one visits and the access intelligence agencies continue to have to all phone data — but otherwise barely a murmur. Labour, even under its new, supposedly more combative leadership, offered not criticism but praise.
British intelligence still bears the halo of its finest hour, delivered by the code-breaking geniuses of Bletchley Park. You could look for explanations for this placidity in the proposed legislation itself, noting that — on the bright side — it does at least, and at last, admit what was for so long denied. Maybe Britons are glad that, while two years ago ministers denounced Snowden as a traitor and enabler of terrorists, they now tacitly admit that the NSA whistleblower had a point: The spooks are indeed engaged in mass surveillance of the entire populace and, if that’s happening, then it should at least be placed under democratic oversight.
But that’s to look in the wrong place. The roots of Britons’ quiescence go much deeper than this clause or that paragraph of a bill. Polls have long shown that Britons are remarkably phlegmatic when it comes to intrusion by the security agencies. Tellingly, while 63 per cent of Brits earlier this year told YouGov that they trusted the intelligence folk to “behave responsibly”, the same proportion of Americans — 63 per cent — said they did not want their government intercepting, storing and analysing their phone records and internet use. Just 44 per cent of Britons felt the same way.
In searching for an explanation for this gap between Britain and other nations, you could do worse than visit the cinema. The latest Bond movie, Spectre, has a Snowden-ish plot about a plan for mass surveillance, but it still insists that the true face of British intelligence — M, Moneypenny, James Bond himself — is on the side of the angels. As Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh put it last week: “The most British thing about James Bond is the very idea of a secret agent of the state who is benign.”
Contrast that with the Mission: Impossible or Jason Bourne series, where the hero has to go rogue to do good, breaking from the wicked plotters back in headquarters. In this — or in John le Carre’s Smiley — popular culture is reflecting something long etched in the national memory. British intelligence still bears the halo of its finest hour, delivered by the code-breaking geniuses of Bletchley Park, the legend of Alan Turing and those who cracked Enigma. The commentator Gideon Rachman suggests the folk memory goes deeper still: Ever since Francis Walsingham’s network of spies gathered intel on the Spanish armada, we have credited the men in the dark with warding off foreign invasion. Put simply, we trust them.
Contrast the British experience with Germany’s. Britons have never lived under the eye of a security state, so their blood does not chill at the very notion of keeping a list of who lives where.
If we picture a spook rifling through itemised phone bills, it seems that most of us imagine a hunt for someone about to wreak lethal harm, rather than a Stasi-style probe into the emotional or personal lives of others. It helps that there persists that stubborn British deference to power, a state of mind that does not — in contrast with the US — see agents of government as people’s servants, but rather as people with assumed, if not automatic, authority over the population. But recent experience has played a part too. The most visible form of surveillance is CCTV and Britons are watched by more cameras per head of population than any country outside China — one for every 11 of us at the last count.
Yet, how often do you hear a complaint about the lens in the station or shop or lift or corridor? Any grumble of discontent was quieted more than 20 years ago, by a few haunting frames caught in a Merseyside shopping centre. When CCTV captured the toddler James Bulger being led by the hand on the way to his brutal murder, the debate over the merits of such permanent surveillance was stilled. We had seen its value, as one did again on July 21, 2005, when police could study footage of the men who had plotted to repeat the 7/7 attacks of a fortnight earlier.
Add to this the changing nature of privacy. People voluntarily reveal more of themselves online — their photographs, their desires, their fears — than would have seemed imaginable even a decade ago.
Perhaps that makes state intrusion feel less intrusive. Maybe people vaguely assumed that the tech companies stored their emails and web histories anyway, able to access them if they wanted to — taking comfort only in the hope that nobody would find them that interesting. Whether it’s Britain’s history as an island nation that has escaped invasion and tyranny or its rapidly shifting mores, the fact remains that Britain has long had the same reaction to evidence that the state is watching. Britons refuse to be shaken or stirred. They don’t respond with a shiver — but a shrug.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd