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Interception: law, media, and techniques

Keenan, Bernard (2017) Interception: law, media, and techniques. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.2zy5g8eu34il


In 2013, Edward Snowden provided journalists with copies of classified documents detailing the operations of the National Security Agency of the United States and its allies; in particular, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters. Snowden explained that he hoped to set the conditions for a new technical literacy that would alter understandings of the relationship between digital communications and law. This thesis asks whether or not law is capable of repaying Snowden’s faith. To that end, it offers a media-theoretical genealogy of the interception of communication in the UK. Interception is presented as an effect of different sets of technical operations, mediated and processed by communication devices and networks. The thesis traces interception techniques: from their beginnings in the General Post Office; in their evolution through the operations of technical media; to their reappearance in the operations of digital media that constitute the internet. The authorisation of interception, meanwhile, has always depended upon legal techniques mediated by interception warrants. A genealogy of the interception warrant is presented through an archival study of the distinctly different practices of document production that manufactured and programmed warrants in different media epochs; from the medieval Chancery and paper bureaucracies of state institutions to the graphical user interface, which mediates between interception techniques and law today. Finally, the thesis addresses the function of legislation as it in turn addresses warrants and interception techniques. Law and legislation, it is argued, are incapable of constraining technical operations of interception because, like interception, law is already an effect of media-technical operations. The law operates not by controlling interception, but by processing it, assigning meaning to it, and protecting the secrecy of ongoing interception operations.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2017 Bernard Keenan
Library of Congress subject classification: K Law > K Law (General)
Sets: Departments > Law
Supervisor: Pottage, Alain and Gearty, Conor

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