GCHQ: The Conversation We Never Had
15 February, 2019
Everything up until that point had played out as you might expect for a work's Xmas party, starting in the meeting room with Prosecco-pong and pin-the-ear-on-the-elf. After making good use of three bottles and making sure to lock up for the weekend, we each made our separate ways to Cheltenham.
There was dinner, secret Santa, more games and more wine. After most of the managers and some of the other staff had slipped away relatively unscathed, our remaining group planned our next move, the time being only 5pm but feeling more like 10. Cheltenham was gearing up for a Friday night, the streetlights were on and every bar in Montpellier looked inviting.
Someone suggested a place, maybe me, and we were on our way. A brisk skip (or stumble) across the street to a place we were all familiar with. And this is where things changed pretty quickly.
Depending on who you were in the story, you drank, drank maybe a little too much, reunited with mutual friends, danced, drank some more, cried a little and... there are things you don't remember.
By now I'd drunk a lot myself, which served only to fuel my interest when my ears perked up in the din, triggered by those four letters – letters which I can no longer hear without associations of corruption and violation. "They work for GCHQ."
Now, meeting people from GCHQ in Cheltenham isn't too rare. Whether you know it or not (and most of the time you won't), if you live in or around Cheltenham you probably bump into an agent or another member of staff every day. This is because GCHQ itself sits just minutes away from the centre of Cheltenham, and the town is full of their employees. I've even heard it said that the majority of people who live in Cheltenham work in some way for the agency.
The significance quickly dawned on me and three things seemed to happen all at once, which would ultimately change the course of the night. They were: my realising I was standing before two agents from GCHQ; what was probably a look of hunger on my face; and the first words to come out of my mouth: "What are your thoughts about the fact we're all living in a surveillance state?"
I suppose that conversation starter was destined not to go down well, considering present company. I could see something – maybe panic – hit them instantly. One of the men was clearly unimpressed with the way I'd introduced myself. But quite frankly, fuck it. The time for niceties is over. He was clearly indignant that I would even think to ask such a reasonable question; and I was left with his sidekick, who seemed to spend the next 10 minutes playing good cop, defending his colleague's aggressive responses and having fled the scene of discomfort.
I say it now in no uncertain terms – I happily acknowledge there are certain things these staff members are forbidden to discuss. I happily acknowledge that for the most part these people are probably decent, hard-working men and women just trying to do the right things in order to protect their country from a variety of threats. But unfortunately that's not enough, and a minority of good, in cases of mass surveillance, does not excuse the majority of wrongdoing, which we simply cannot afford to ignore.
What I don't respect is that man's lack of respect for differences of opinion. I would later hear from someone close to me who talked with him further (after he'd abandoned our talk and left me with nothing but a distant, cold, suspicious glare) – I would later hear that one of the first things he asked about me was whether I was a journalist. For obvious reasons, journalists aren't the most popular people in the world of intelligence agencies, but there are people they should be more worried about: ordinary, concerned citizens who value their right to privacy and are willing to speak out against anything which seeks to interfere with it.
Neither can I respect another remark this man made to a friend of mine, who he also indirectly insulted: "He's just a millennial."
Yes, I'm just a millennial – and proud of it. One of many, who can vote; who read the news and learn about what goes on behind closed doors and the ways in which their country is run; who understand what power overreach is and what it means for ordinary and innocent people; who are proud of their human rights but painfully aware when those rights clash with that overreach on a mass scale, threatening loved ones, their compatriots and the rest of the world.
We are the ones who are speaking out and building the tools to circumvent this surveillance and defend against abuse of power – with code, community, open communication and hope for a future of true freedom.