So is it a Milly Dowler moment? Will the revelation that GCHQ taps every internet communication that enters or leaves the UK mark the moment when ordinary citizens stop and say: "Oh, now I get it." A moment when people realise that the stuff that nerds and activists had been droning on about might actually affect them?
My hunch is that it isn't such a moment. Most people will just shrug their shoulders and get on with life. They will accept the assurances of those in authority and move on. If they do, then they will have missed something important. It is that our democracies have indeed reached a pivotal point. Ever since it first became clear that the internet was going to become the nervous system of the planet, the 64 billion dollar question was whether it would be "captured" by giant corporations or by governments. Now we know the answer: it's "both".
If anyone is shocked by what's been disclosed in the last fortnight, then they haven't been paying attention to the technology. Computer power has been obeying Moore's Law – doubling every two years – for nigh on four decades. Network bandwidth has been tripling every year. Ditto digital storage capacity.
The result is that what looked like science fiction 20 years ago is now a mundane reality. Back then, we assumed that the scale and pace of growth of the internet would put it beyond the reach of even the most intrusive surveillance. Nobody or nothing could drink from such a firehose – or so we thought. We forgot about Moore's Law. We didn't realise, for example, that one day GCHQ would have the technological capacity not just to drink from the firehose, but to store the results for more leisurely inspection – to build what is, in effect, an iPlayer for the net: making the missable unmissable, if you like.
But it's not just citizens who are behind the technological curve. Our political leaders seem similarly clueless. In 1999, when the regulation of investigatory powers bill was being shepherded through Parliament by Jack Straw and Charles Clarke, those of us who lobbied against it were astonished to discover how relaxed most MPs seemed to be. They had been told (by the Home Office) that the bill was a tidying-up operation – that laws regulating phone-tapping that had been drafted in an analogue age needed to be updated for a digital one.
But very few MPs seemed to appreciate that you can't "wiretap" email the way one can bug a phone. As a result, they were blind to the sweeping nature of the powers that Ripa would confer on the state. And they certainly had no idea that Ripa would one day provide the "legal" cover for GCHQ's wholesale tapping of the submarine cables that carry internet traffic from and to the UK.
At every point in this unfolding story, government ministers and officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been at pains to point out that everything that is done by the NSA and GCHQ is lawful because there is "legal oversight". The problem is that citizens have to take their word for it because every substantive aspect of that oversight is secret. In the US, for example, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (which oversees the NSA's activities) operates in total secrecy. In the UK, the operations of MI6 and GCHQ are overseen by two "independent" commissioners who are chosen by the prime minister and who report to him every year.
The parts of their reports that are deemed "publishable" are presented to Parliament. The non-publishable parts are, er, secret. In the last two weeks, the adjective "Orwellian" has been widely deployed. But "Kafkaesque" seems more appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves. The conversation between the state and the citizen has been reduced to a dialogue that the writer would have recognised. It goes like this.
State Although intrusive surveillance does infringe a few liberties, it's necessary if you are to be protected from terrible things.
Citizen (anxiously) What terrible things?
State Can't tell you, I'm afraid, but believe us they are truly terrible. And, by the way, surveillance has already prevented some terrible things.
Citizen Such as?
State Sorry, can't go into details about those either.
Citizen So how do I know that this surveillance racket isn't just bureaucratic empire building?
State You don't need to worry about that because it's all done under legal authority.
Citizen So how does that work?
State Regrettably, we can't go into details because if we did so then the bad guys might get some ideas.
What it comes down to, in the end, is: "Trust us." And the trouble with that is that in recent decades our political elites have done precious little to deserve our trust. Now we're being asked to suspend our disbelief as they eavesdrop on all of our online activities – to trust them, in a way, with the most intimate details of our social and private lives. And all on the basis of laws that they – or their security apparatuses – wrote in order to rationalise and legitimate their snooping.
What we're witnessing is the metamorphosis of our democracies into national security states in which the prerogatives of security authorities trump every other consideration and in which critical or sceptical appraisal of them is ruled out of court.
In the UK, for example, we've watched GCHQ – the organisation that emerged from the huts of Bletchley Park, trailing clouds of Enigma glory – swell into a gigantic bureaucracy whose remit includes cyber-crime and cyber-espionage and, now, eavesdropping on its own citizens. In the world of organisational politics, there is a term for this: mission creep. And with it comes the kind of swaggering hubris implicit in the name chosen for the cable-tapping project: Mastering the Internet. Says it all, really.