Surveillance threatens vital arteries of communication in the body politic

Opinion: Personal electronic devices are now central to politicians’ ability to be informed

The Taoiseach on the phone at his party’s Ard Fheis. Photograph: Eric Luke

The Taoiseach on the phone at his party’s Ard Fheis. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sun, Oct 27, 2013, 00:01

At least twice this week Government Ministers displayed their reliance on personal electronic devices even within the Dáil. Today FM political correspondent Gavan Reilly commented on Twitter on Thursday about how Minister of State at the Department of Education Ciarán Cannon had read his replying speech to a “topical issues” debate in the House directly from his iPad. Cannon later pointed out that for months he had being using his iPad rather than a paper script, adding that he found it curious it was still seemed worthy of comment.

In the Seanad the previous evening Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Alan Shatter apologised to Senators for appearing to be absorbed in his mobile phone during a debate in the Upper House.

He explained that word had just come through to him on his phone of the outcome of the crucial DNA tests at the centre of the controversial case in which a child had been taken from a Roma family in Dublin on suspicion that the couple involved were not the child’s parents. The Minister then went on to give an immediate, considered reaction to the Seanad on the implications of the news he had just received.


Gatekeeping
In politics, as in all walks of life, personal electronic devices are now central to how leaders communicate with each other, with officials and with the outside world. At the higher echelons of political leadership they provide a useful means of stripping back the layers of control and gatekeeping that often surround those at or near the top.

At the height of the second World War, the then British prime minister Winston Churchill’s primary form of communication with the military and government system was by means of hundreds of short, usually blunt memos requiring some step to be taken. Churchill would attach at the top of any such urgent memo a bright red label with “Action this day” written on it.

Churchill’s memos were intended to get around the rigid hierarchical system of circulation of documentation that then dominated the British civil service. In the normal course a directive from the desk of the prime minister would have had to travel through the senior level of the department to which it had been directed before it found its way down the line to where it could be implemented.


Lemass
The same problems arose in the Irish civil service even during wartime. In the first months after he was appointed Minister for Supplies in 1939, Seán Lemass got around the problem by starting his day with a series of short, one-to-one meetings with principal officers enquiring whether they had implemented orders of the previous days; issuing new directives; and gathering information on the progress of his plans to reorientate the economy rapidly to meet the changed circumstances.

More recently, electronic devices have enabled political leaders to do likewise. Many are in the habit of sending short, often urgent texts or emails directly to the appropriate officials or advisers. Such devices also allow leaders engage with party figures or others directly without having to go through cumbersome official channels.

A report in yesterday’s Guardian that was sourced from documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden suggested the United States National Security Agency was systematically monitoring the phone activity of no fewer than 35 world leaders. The Garda apparently is to make enquiries as to whether the Taoiseach was among them.

At this stage it seems the monitoring of such phones was so extensive it would nearly be an insult to Enda Kenny if his wasn’t on the list. The Taoiseach yesterday told the BBC he operates the on the assumption that everything he says on a mobile phone will be listened to by someone. Indeed, he made a point, on his way into the European summit, of showing reporters how relatively rudimentary his mobile phone is.

So intensive was US president Barack Obama’s use of his mobile phone when he was a presidential candidate that the question of whether he could use his Blackberry as president became a national topic of conversation during the transition. Fears were initially expressed that he would have to give up using a mobile device altogether, not only on security grounds but also because of statutory requirements that every presidential communication be archived.

This met with a backlash not only from those who argued it was an archaic but also from Obama. A compromise was reached with the security service whereby the president was issued with a mobile phone for occasional, presumably scrambled use.


Intense anger
Obama must therefore have a particular appreciation of why German chancellor Angela Merkel felt angry when it was revealed during the week that the US National Security Agency (NSA) monitored phone and text messages to and from her mobile phones. The revelation met with intense anger from the German population. Germans know well their chancellor’s legendary fondness of her mobile phone. They have also, of course, historic experience of state intrusion into personal privacy.

On The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 during the week, John Schindler, a former NSA official who is professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, suggested that political leaders were being naive if they used their mobiles to say or text anything they really wanted to be secret.

He may be correct but regard also has to be had to their need to communicate directly and freely with a circle or people somewhat wider than the usually tightly knit core of officials and advisers that usually cocoons them.

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