What now for the surveillance state?

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

To most visitors, Cheltenham is a charming spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds. They admire its handsome regency terraces, visit its racecourse and throng to a thriving festival scene. Less visibly, Cheltenham is also a company town built around one industry: spying.

The Government Communications Headquarters seems to be very good at what it does. Its 6,400 employees include many bright computer engineers who work tirelessly to invent ever more imaginative ways to collect vast amounts of data on hundreds of millions of people.

Some find what they do reassuring, others menacing. As for the people who work at GCHQ, they have found themselves, for the first time, under intense scrutiny. This is, to put it mildly, unwelcome to them. They would like it to stop – and they have friends in politics, the law and even the press who agree.

According to those who study such things for a living, we live in a golden age of surveillance. The mobile phones we carry around betray us – our movements, our search terms, our health, our intentions, our friends, our emails, our texts. A bland name for it is "metadata". But, as one former lawyer with the US National Security Agency told me: "Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life."

GCHQ is, along with the NSA, a world leader. Over the past five years GCHQ's access to what they call "light" (a sweeter name for metadata) has increased by 7,000%, according to documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The amount of material being analysed or processed is up by 3,000%. That's a lot of light.

Some accuse GCHQ of being little more than the Cheltenham branch office of the NSA. This may be unfair, but Whitehall officials concede that there is a high degree of co-operation and sharing between the two agencies. One of Cheltenham's senior legal advisers put the possible attraction for their American counterparts this way: "We have a light oversight regime compared with the US."

GCHQ, which receives tens of millions of pounds from the NSA every year, used, in some minds, to be the Cinderella of the intelligence world. The public imagination was more easily captured by James Bond, George Smiley and the cold war pitting of agent against agent.

It's now clear that GCHQ and the NSA have risen without..

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/02/alan-rusbridger-surveillance-state-spies-gchq-nsa