Only a “small, but significant minority” of MPs in the House of Commons care about issues of internet privacy and state surveillance raised by the Edward Snowden disclosures, according to David Davis MP.
And “even the ministers in charge of this don’t have the first bloody idea of what they are doing,” he added, in response to a question from Computing.
Davis was speaking after a private screening of the film, Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s film about the Edward Snowden leaks, which includes inside footage from Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room when the disclosures to the Guardian and other newspapers were planned and made.
He continued: “The Home Secretary described meta-data as just your phone bill. Either she was being mischievous, or she didn’t know what she was talking about – it’s either one or the other.
“That’s normal. The average age of MPs is in their forties and most of them think they’re being very clever if they go on Twitter. They don’t understand much about the [technology] mechanisms they are dealing with,” he said.
And even the best minds completely under-estimated the capabilities and extent of GCHQ’s eavesdropping operations, he added.
“When Professor Ross Anderson was giving evidence to a joint committee on the ‘snoopers’ charter’, he was asked how good GCHQ was. He sees probably the best [computer] graduates in the country graduate at Cambridge, and he said ‘they can either go to GCHQ and earn £25,000 a year or they can go to California and earn $200,000 a year, with share options.
“The real difference is that in California they can end up running the company or own their own company – they’ll never end up running anything at GCHQ because they haven’t got a degree in PPE, which everyone knows stands for ‘piss-poor economists,” said Davis*.
“The trouble is, our society is run by people with degrees in PPE, not by technologists or people who even understand [these issues],” said Davis.
“If you go in the ‘smoking room’ of the House of Commons or sit on the terrace, you will not hear anyone talking about technology. You will not hear people who understand technology,” he added.
* In the minutes of that particular session on 4th September 2012, Professor Ross Anderson said: “Let me tell you why GCHQ cannot get good technical staff. First, they do not pay. Somebody with a recent PhD from our team might start at Google at $200,000 a year in California; Cheltenham would offer them £25,000 a year, for which you cannot buy a house in Cheltenham.
“The second reason is that the structure of our Civil Service means that if you go into GCHQ with a PhD in computer science, your chance of becoming director is zero. For that, you have to go in with a degree in PPE, which is an entirely different route. People with self-respect will not go to work for a firm where there is no reasonable chance of becoming the boss. There are big issues here but they are tied in with much bigger issues to do with Civil Service reform.”