Harry Cockburn: Why is the news the government can listen in to live phone conversations so unsurprising?

Not so long ago, tapping a telephone or bugging someone’s house was difficult and dangerous work. During the Cold War, secret agents on both sides of the Atlantic were routinely deployed to particular addresses in order to plant listening devices to obtain information on suspects.

Meanwhile, Stasi agents in East Germany had the use of tiny microphones hidden in wristwatches, would place bugs on trees, and could even wear cameras secreted in neck-ties. All of these ingenious pieces of technology are now on display at the Stasimuseum in Berlin.

But there will be no museum for the secret listening devices of today. A modern James Bond would laugh at the crude spying tools of the 20th Century. All of the technology we now use to communicate with one another comes surveillance-ready. No need to send a secret agent to Moscow to plant a bug anymore; if they’re using a mobile phone, then the chances are the conversation can be listened to already.

Vodafone has come clean about the way the technology we’re paying for works. A shocking statement from the mobile operator reveals that government agencies can, and are, listening in to private conversations. This isn’t a small operation either. The company, which is aiming to expose the extent of government surveillance, says that secret wires are used “widely” in some of the 29 countries in which it operates.

The technology is also used to locate people, and Vodafone says that the same thing is going on at other network providers.

According to the Guardian’s Juliette Garside, the equipment, known as “pipes”, used to listen in to calls often exists within a locked room at a network’s central data centre. Staff working in those rooms are sometimes employed by the telecoms companies, but they must also have state security clearance, and are therefore unable to discuss their work with the company.

This means that details of private calls, as well as locations, can easily be passed on to governments without any detailed knowledge by the network operators.

Privacy campaigners have described this as a “nightmare scenario”. But I strongly suspect that there will not be any widespread public outrage at this revelation.

We’re used to it now. Google reads all of our emails. Facebook is listening to our surroundings. Life goes on, and on the whole we don’t see a vast number of digital privacy problems that impact daily life.

After all, if you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to hide, right?

Well, that’s all well and good until you make any dissenting noises against those in power.

Scores of people were arrested ahead of the 2012 Royal Wedding for discussing protests, before they’d even done anything remotely illegal. Police used “covert sources and social media” to find suspects, who were then held in what police described as an “environmental training camp” near Heathrow, while the wedding was taking place.

Under the European convention on human rights, the police have a legal obligation to facilitate protest, but is this happening in reality?

In recent weeks police paid an eerie visit to a blogger named Michael Abberton after he posted a tweet on Twitter that brought into question various UKIP policies. The police then tracked down his address, came to his house, and asked him to take down the perfectly legal tweet.

Western governments may not be overtly blocking access to sites and services on the internet, such as they are in places like Iran and China, but as Edward Snowden revealed, they are worried, they are watching you and recording your movements.

So long as it seems a benign presence, shadowy state surveillance will continue largely unchallenged by the population. But by the time any mass outrage surfaces, it will already be too late.

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