Security or privacy?

In 1215 the Magna Carta sprang out of a desire to check the power of the state by protecting the liberties of King John's subjects. Now, in the internet age, a debate is under way on whether we need protection from state intrusion into our privacy.

The extraordinary growth of state surveillance of the UK population has been fuelled by political and technological developments in recent decades. But in the name of national security, the state has been eavesdropping on us for far longer than that.



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Medieval historian Dr Stephen Baxter on the 'intrusion' of the Domesday Book. Clip from Domesday (BBC, 2010).

The Domesday Book has been described by historian Dr Stephen Baxter as 'the most intrusive act of government the English had ever known'.

This survey of land and livestock ownership in England and parts of Wales was compiled on the orders of King William I, ostensibly to determine what taxes were owed to him. But the audit, by commissioners sent out across the land, was soon nicknamed after God's final Day of Judgement, when every soul would be assessed and against which there could be no appeal. It demonstrated the sheer power of the 11th Century state machine, as well as its appetite for information.

Learn more about the feudal system and the Domesday Book

Knowledge is never too dear.

Sir Francis Walsingham, c.1532-1590, Secretary of State


The father of modern intelligence

Print Collector/Getty

Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I

Sir Francis Walsingham set up a spy school to train agents in intelligence work.

Surveillance, espionage and trickery were the hallmarks of the Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

The lawyer turned minister weaved an intelligence network across Britain and Europe to protect the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Walsingham's agents detected and thwarted a succession of plots by Catholics at home and abroad to overthrow the queen and give the crown to her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Intercepting private correspondence, using deception and manipulation, encryption and decryption, he helped blaze a trail for later British espionage agencies.

In pictures: Elizabeth I's spymaster


The secret room

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Dominic Sandbrook on John Thurloe's secret surveillance of the Royal Mail. Clip from The People’s Post (BBC Radio 4, 2011).

With intelligence a precious commodity after the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell's state took full advantage of its control of the postal service.

In May 1655 Cromwell appointed his spymaster John Thurloe as postmaster general. In a secret room at the Post Office Thurloe's spies covertly intercepted letters from those suspected of plotting against Cromwell's Protectorate. Thurloe infiltrated agents into Royalist circles and employed Oxford University mathematician John Wallis to decipher their codes. With all except state-controlled outlets banned, the powerful Thurloe also manipulated the flow of news in the country.

Learn more about Oliver Cromwell

The secrets of no family, of no individual, can be guaranteed from reaching the ear of a cabinet minister.

The Times newspaper, 1844


Post Office espionage crisis


1844: The Inland letter Office at the GPO.

1844: The Inland letter Office at the GPO.

While the state had been in effect 'hacking' the Royal Mail for some time, it wasn't until the 19th Century that it erupted into a public scandal.

In March 1844 the British government accepted a request by the Austrian ambassador to secretly open and copy mail addressed to Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile in London. By June Mazzini had grown suspicious. A friendly MP petitioned parliament for the interception to cease and the scandal broke. For two months Victorian society, author Charles Dickens included, fiercely debated its right to privacy, and a Commons committee was ordered to investigate state surveillance of private mail.

More on BBC Radio 4's history of the Post Office


The birth of MI5

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BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera on MI5 a century after Vernon Kell. Clip from Our World: MI5 (BBC, 2010).

Britain's surveillance operation, at home and abroad, was further formalised in 1909 with the foundation of the Secret Service Bureau.

The Bureau was split into separate arms. Vernon Kell ('K') took charge of Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5) which oversaw counter-espionage at home, while at MI6 George Mansfield Smith-Cumming ('C') was tasked with gathering intelligence from overseas. MI5 began successfully rooting out foreign agents in the UK, netting 65 German spies during World War One. It later began to widen its scope by investigating individuals suspected of being controlled by foreign influence.

Read about when spy agencies officially didn't existMI5: What we do


The origins of GCHQ


Registration room in hut 6 at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, 1943

By 1943 the Government Code & Cypher School had moved to Bletchley Park.

The UK's wartime success in code-breaking and intercepting signals led to the creation of a unified Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS) in 1919.

In the post-war era intelligence was to be gleaned from coded diplomatic telegrams. With British firms leading the communications industry of the day, by agreement the contents of private cable and telegram messages were regularly made available to GC&CS, a secret uncovered amid great controversy in 1967. As war loomed again GC&CS moved its operation to Bletchley Park, and emerged in the 1950s in Cheltenham where it exists today as Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

GCHQ: What we do

The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of WWII.

House of Lords Constitution Committee, 2009


Five Eyes


Harry S. Truman (C), Clement Atltee (L) and King Mackenzie at the White House

UK Prime Minister Clement Attlee, US President Harry S Truman and Canadian PM Mackenzie King discussing business at the White House.

The West readied itself for the Cold War in 1946 with an agreement between the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to share intelligence.

Dubbed the 'Five Eyes', their agreement was based on radio and other intercepts from the USSR and Eastern Bloc nations. But evidence emerging around the turn of the millennium suggested that the alliance had begun eavesdropping on other forms of communication to gather and share information from domestic and non-military targets. In 2000 the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal was created to investigate complaints about the conduct of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and the use of covert surveillance.

BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera on Five EyesThe Investigatory Powers Tribunal



The Bad Aibling Station, part of the global surveillance network ECHELON

Satellite tracking systems are believed to form part of the Echelon global surveillance network.

In 2001 the European Parliament investigated reports of the existence of "a global system for intercepting private and commercial communications".

It concluded this was 'no longer in doubt'. Codenamed Echelon, the system was said to allow the Five Eyes alliance to intercept any telephone, fax, and later internet or email message, sent by any individual. Echelon was said to have been active for 30 years. Any interception of communications, warned the European Parliament report, 'represents serious interference with an individual's exercise of the right to privacy'. Echelon's existence was officially denied by the UK and US governments.

European Parliament 2001 report on Echelon


The rise of CCTV

CCTV sign

In 2011 a police report estimated that the average Briton was filmed by 70 cameras during a normal day.

In the UK public surveillance by Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) began in Bournemouth, and spread rapidly as a crime prevention tool in the 1990s.

In 2009 a BBC Freedom of Information request revealed that the London borough of Wandsworth contained more CCTV cameras (1,113) than the combined city councils of Dublin and Sydney. By 2014 there were thought to be 100,000 state operated CCTV cameras in the UK, out of an estimated total of six million surveillance cameras. The use of body worn video cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, is also on the rise.

BBC News: The end of the CCTV era?

The lack of public awareness about the nature of surveillance troubles me.

Tony Porter, Surveillance Camera Commissioner, January 2015


Cameras that can read

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Richard Bilton looks at the sophistication of ANPR cameras. Clip from Who’s Watching You? (BBC, 2009).

From 2006 it has been possible to track with increasing sophistication the real time progress of vehicles travelling across the United Kingdom.

There are reported to be 500,000 automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras in operation across the UK, recording 30 million licence plates every day. Cameras can also photograph the driver and any passengers. Data from police forces is submitted to a National ANPR Data Centre and stored for at least two years. In 2012, to counter concerns about the intrusion of CCTV, the Protection of Freedoms Act founded the role of Surveillance Camera Commissioner to oversee a code of practice.

The Surveillance Camera Commissioner for England & Wales

It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949



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Conservative MP David Davis on Edward Snowden's revelations on the extent of GCHQ's monitoring of domestic internet use (HARDtalk, BBC Two, 2013).

In June 2013 The Guardian newspaper reported that GCHQ had secretly tapped fibre-optic cables carrying the world's phone calls and internet traffic.

Among the revelations contained in documents released by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden was the existence for the past 18 months of the Tempora programme. According to the newspaper's report, GCHQ had gained secret access to 200 cables, allowing it to gather data on up to 600 million communications every day, and was sharing the information with the US National Security Agency. In response, GCHQ insisted its activities were "authorised, necessary and proportionate".

Read more about the Edward Snowden leaks


The snoopers' charter


Man's face reflected on computer screen showing binary numbers

As of 2012 communications firms only retained data about to whom people sent emails, and whom they rang.

In May the UK government outlined plans to make internet service providers log all details of online activity in the UK and store it for a year.

The Draft Communications Data Bill, or 'snoopers' charter', would include for the first time details of messages sent on social media, webmail, voice calls over the internet and gaming in addition to emails and phone calls. The police, Serious and Organised Crime Agency, intelligence agencies and HM Revenue and Customs would have access to the data. Home Secretary Theresa May said the law was needed to help fight crime and 'save lives', but the bill was blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Read a Q&A on the 2012 Draft Communications Data Bill

There is no programme of mass surveillance and there is no surveillance state.

Theresa May, Home Secretary, June 2014


Blocking a loophole

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How BBC News At Six reported on the emergency data legislation in July 2014.

In 2014 parliament passed an emergency law making phone and internet firms hand over customer data to the security services, subject to a warrant.

The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) was introduced after a European Court of Justice ruling created a loophole allowing security services access to such information. The act was supported by all three main political parties as a measure to fight crime and protect against terrorism. Although the number of bodies able to access data was reduced, civil liberties campaigners argued there was no legal basis for the move, and were unhappy about how the bill was rushed into law.

What the emergency data law means for you