Nothing to worry the "law-abiding", American and British politicians have assured us, in the wake of the revelations of mushrooming mass surveillance of phone, email and internet traffic in the United States. The electronic harvesting is in fact "very narrowly circumscribed", US President Barack Obama insists.
The behaviour of Britain's intelligence services was, Prime Minister David Cameron declared, entirely "proper and fitting".
In fact, courtesy of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, we now know America's National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting 200billion pieces of intelligence a month, hoovering up the cellphone records of more than 200-million Americans and helping itself to a vast quantity of emails, web searches and live chats from the world's largest internet companies via a program called Prism.
Naturally, the NSA has been sharing some of its spying catches about British citizens with its friends at the UK Government Communications Headquarters, which is responsible for signals intelligence, sparing the British authorities the tiresome need to arrange a warrant. But it was still authorised, the foreign secretary told the British Parliament, apparently by himself. So nothing to fear there either.
Such rampant blanket surveillance of course makes a mockery of the right to privacy – guaranteed by the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment – and that has been the focus of debate since the Guardian began publishing the leaks. However law-abiding a citizen may be, the dangers of manipulated phone or web "metadata" wrongly branding someone as a criminal are legion and well-documented. And while interception of letters is an ancient intelligence practice, Prism is the equivalent of all letters being opened, copied and stored – in case they might be incriminating at a later date.
But this is as much about power as it is about privacy. Surveillance and intelligence are tools of control, at home and abroad. The history of their abuse by the American and British governments is voluminous, both in subverting and overthrowing foreign governments, from Iran to Chile, or in attacking civil rights at home, during the cold war and since the 9/11 attacks.
The NSA and the Government Communications Headquarters, whose collaboration is at the heart of the US and British "special relationship", have been central to that for decades.
Their global eavesdropping role is the cornerstone of the "five eyes" alliance of Anglophone states (including Australia, Canada and New Zealand) which underpins US-dominated Western global power. Both agencies were founded in order to spy on the rest of the world, but ended up also targeting their own people.
Two elements are new. The first is the sheer scale and scope of the NSA's trawling, which dwarfs what was possible in the past. The second is the central role of private corporations in the emerging global surveillance state.
Corporations have long been hand in glove with the secret state, working with the security services to this day to blacklist trade unionists and funding covert labour movement organisations during the cold war. What's changed is that communication is in the hands of the corporations. And the companies whose servers are vacuumed up by Prism are a roll call of US internet giants, from Google to YouTube.
The leaked NSA documents say that the companies collaborate, which they deny. But any idea that these tax-dodging behemoths represent a new form of libertarian democratic cool has now been comprehensively exposed as yesterday's marketing guff.
But as well as technology, it's the war on terror that has driven the hyper-expansion of the new security-industrial complex. Along with the meaningless catch-all justification of "national security", terrorism is invoked to justify all manner of anti-democratic innovations. And since nobody wants to be blown up on buses or trains, it gives a veneer of credibility to formerly discredited spying organisations.
In reality, both the NSA and UK Government Communications Headquarters, along with their sister spying outfits, are fuelling as much as fighting terrorism. It is they who provide the intelligence for drone attacks that have killed thousands of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. In the UK a Pakistani man is currently taking a case to the court of appeal (the second most senior court in the English legal system) against Government Communications Headquarters for allegedly providing the "intelligence" for a CIA drone strike that killed his father.
And it's the same US and British intelligence services that have been involved in widespread torture, kidnapping and other crimes in the past decade – as well as scandalous intelligence manipulation over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – that now claim to be protecting us from some of the consequences.
In the UK, Government Communications Headquarters and the NSA were mobilised to conduct spying and dirty tricks operations against the 1980s British miners' strike, while in the 1970s an investigation by the US Senate, conducted by the Church Committee, exposed systematic abuse of US eavesdropping powers against civil rights and antiwar activists.
Senator Frank Church himself warned then that the NSA's capability "at any time could be turned around on the American people".
That is what has now happened, first in the early years of the Bush administration and now under Obama. And judging by experience, abuses would multiply if either state were again faced with significant political or industrial challenge.
Claims that the intelligence agencies are now subject to genuine accountability, rather than ministerial rubber stamps, secret courts and committees of trusties, have been repeatedly shown to be nonsense. But the political elites have their own priorities. Instead of drawing back from mass surveillance, British ministers are chafing to introduce new legislation to extend it.
The US and allied intelligence services are instruments of domestic and global power and dominance, far beyond issues of terrorism.
Revealingly, the state shown by the leaks to be the NSA's biggest intelligence target in Europe is the economic powerhouse of Germany – to a flurry of cautious protests from German politicians.
Democratic institutions have spectacularly failed to hold US and other Western states' intelligence and military operations to account. So it's been left to a string of whistleblowers to fill the gap.
It's now up to the rest of us to make sure their courage isn't wasted. – © Guardian News & Media 2013