Used our amazing NHS lately? Read the news recently? Then you’ll know that a huge chunk of NHS computers were hacked, causing massive problems and leading the cancellation of vital operations. This actually happened, in Britain, in 2017. The finger-pointing is still going on as I write these words, but one thing we do know: the Conservative government did indeed cancel an NHS cyber-security deal with Microsoft in order to save £5.5m. Leaving aside their incompetence and stupidity, what other government departments, desperate to make savings, could be targeted by future attacks? We can only guess, and hope that measures will now be put in place by our tech overlords. Yet other questions remain: what did our government do to allow this to happen? Will it happen again? Were our security services aware of the possibilities of hacking? Did they take steps to prevent it? Well, that’s where it gets tricky…
It seems that GCHQ knew about the vulnerability in the NHS systems in order to exploit the loopholes created by such weaknesses. Because if these weaknesses exist, then GCHQ (and its nosy sister service in the US, the NSA) can learn about them and use them for their own ends. (In other words, to hack systems themselves.) “But we’re just overly reliant on technology because it makes so many things easier.” That’s the rejoinder. “Data-driven systems are essential.” Yes, they are, but surely government needs to ensure everyone is doing what they can to combat the dangers from hackers and those with malicious intent. Various NHS trusts have few, if any, experts employed in order to protect them from cyber attack.
Instead in the UK our own security services deliberately didn’t tell other branches of government about the gaping hole in security, knowing surely that at some point these dangers could have very serious consequences. And what are the chances GCHQ will be held to account for this, and that prosecutions will follow? Well basically, absolutely none whatsoever. Because, as you know, GCHQ doesn’t operate within the same set of laws as we do; it doesn’t care about you or what you think of it. It only cares about what information you have and what you intend to do with it. What of openness and accountability? What of it, indeed. Security should be an all-or-nothing enterprise; instead GCHQ have turned into a let’s-exploit-this-to-the-max venture, and they’re playing a very dangerous game. Can we expect some sort of public statement from them? Of course not, because the secret state doesn’t need to justify itself; it is accountable to no one but itself.
You think security service meetings with government are open and above board? Not a chance. We’re not told anything about what goes on, and nothing is ever published. The committee that overseas our intelligence agenices are bought up and owned by the same shadowy people. All members are heavily vetted (and usually have had former departmental experience relating to the security services). It always questions security and intelligence witnesses in private, and issues only heavily vetted summaries, designed not to reveal any secret information. We have to take the Home Office accounts of it at face value. This is government by absence, accountability through secrecy. When the security services are criticised (murky dealings in Libya, extremely questionable intelligence gathering, etc) they are given a clean bill of health by the committee and found to have acted properly. This isn’t accountability, it’s whitewashing. The enemies of democracy smile, pat themselves on the back and head off to the Commons bar for a taxpayer-subsidised brandy.
You think Amber Rudd’s recent demand that message encryption needs to be accessed by GCHQ is reasonable? I beg to differ. A government that wants as much secrecy for itself whilst insisting we’re not allowed any is a government that cannot be trusted. How did we get to this point? Why must government secrecy be pursued at all costs, and personal information be handed over? I don’t know about you, dear reader, but this bothers me greatly. And this is happening now - in snoopers’ charter Britain. The slow erosion of our rights, as government moves with great alacrity to protect its own. It’s not an accidental set of circumstances, but a deliberately designed one. And you think that Rudd’s desire to dilute encryption is a good one when we witness the NHS’s systems being mercilessly hacked? No. She is dangerous and wrong. Tell her. Tell her in your thousands.
The secret state, of which GCHQ are a part, can never be revealed, exposed, prosecuted. Just as GCHQ will take no hit as a result of the NHS hack, so shady elements of governance will stay in the shadows. There are people who still demand that Tony Blair should be privately prosecuted for sending Britain to war with Iraq. And of course we agree with them, because the actions of the former prime minister are considered illegal by many law experts. But how many of you knew that Blair is now immune from prosecution over Iraq?
I’ll repeat that: Tony Blair is now immune from prosecution because government is worried that any such case would cast some murky light on government and “involve details being disclosed under the Official Secrets Act”. We can’t possibly have that, can we? But the private prosecution wants to see Blair, Jack Straw and ‘Lord’ Goldsmith stand trial for what they did in sending us to a war which has always been a legal grey area. Obviously the Tory attorney general, Jeremy Wright, wants this whole thing stopped, lest people find out about things they shouldn’t. Yes, how awful that would be. Whose government is it anyway? What have they got to hide? After all, we’re not allowed to horde secret data, but government does it with impunity. Very worrying indeed. The secret state must always get its way – or so it thinks.
The decision on this is expected any day now, but – and this is the bit I can scarcely comprehend – it is not clear when the decision will be made public. You thought politicians were accountable for everything they did? You thought they weren’t above the law? This case shows otherwise. As does the decision last year not to prosecute Jack Straw and the former head of counter terrorism at MI6, Mark Allen, for their roles in ensuring the kidnapping (‘rendition’ in new speak) and torture of Libyan opposition figures during the reign of the murderous dictator Gadaffi. And my worry is that blanket immunity will be given to other former or current politicians in order to stop anything dodgy coming out.
If they are above the law, if immunity can be given out like sweets, then what of accountability and oversight? How do we hold them to account if things are ‘not in the public interest’? As Voltaire said: “to discover who rules over you, find out who you’re not allowed to criticise.” The secret state really is a law unto itself, beyond the courts, beyond every democratic apparatus set to precisely to prevent this sort of authoritarianism. And today I read that the killers of PC Yvonne Ridley in 1984 will not be prosecuted because the resulting course case would reveal aspects of the secret state that some people would prefer to be kept secret.
Perhaps hackers could stop attacking NHS systems, and instead concentrate their considerable talent and resources on the disgusting and frankly scary world of Britain’s secret state, where enemies of democracy, openness and the rule of law all seem to hide. It’s time they were dragged out, kicking and screaming, into the light. If ethical hackers, courageous whistleblowers, and investigative journalists were able to do that, it would indeed be a glorious day for democracy, rule of law and accountability. After all, it’s our country, not theirs. The power, lest we forget, always resided with the people. We allow governments to govern; they do so only with our consent; and if it gets to the point where we have decided otherwise, then so be it. This country, for better or for worse, belongs to us, not the establishment, not the monarchy, not some gin-swilling fools in gentlemen’s clubs in Mayfair. It’s ours. I think government has forgotten that. We should remind them – every day.
So come on, let’s do our best to encourage anyone with a open-minded remit to expose these secrecy-loving charlatans. Let’s ensure they have absolutely no place to hide. No secret state, no more immunity from prosecution, no more enemies of democracy. If they won’t put themselves forward and be held accountable, then we have no choice but to do it ourselves.
Click here for part one!
Max Webster is the editor for Political Provocateur