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14 April 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 11:29am

GCHQ stopped a Harry Potter leak, but what do the books say about government surveillance?

 A significant portion of the Harry Potter series is devoted to critiquing the invasions of a surveillance state.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

GCHQ, the government’s intelligence agency based in Cheltenham, has reportedly intervened over a leak of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

This isn’t technically true – as the “leaked copy” they identified was a fake – but it’s a nice, patriotic story: The UK’s surveillance headquarters defend Pride of Britain, JK Rowling!!

But considering the political context of the Harry Potter books, this intervention from our spooks seems a tad misplaced. As many observers have noted, a significant portion of the series is devoted to critiquing the invasions of a surveillance state: the characters in the magical world are constantly engaging in watching and being watched, often with serious consequences. 

Perhaps reflecting our own conflicted relationship with state observation post-9/11, surveillance is desired and feared by witches and wizards in equal measure. Wizarding society is founded on obscuring magical practices from muggles: the 1689 International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy prioritises the invisibility of the wizarding community over basic things like political transparency and human rights. Being watched by the non-magical community is written into state laws as a dangerous scenario to be avoided at all costs.

The flipside of this is that magical surveillance is therefore considered a necessary evil. Seemingly every wizard in the UK is monitored by the Ministry of Magic, often under the supposed aim of preventing muggle awareness of magical activity. We know underage magic is particularly policed – the trace alerts the Ministry to any magic performed outside school by witches and witches under 17, banned under the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery. But adults are under surveillance too – the Ministry’s Improper Use of Magic Office gathers intelligence and punishes violations of the Statute of Secrecy. The Department of Mysteries essentially allows the Ministry to collect and observe vast quantities of records on various individuals (including those kept in the Hall of Prophecy) without any need to inform the public, or the individuals in question, about why they have gathered it.

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As we follow Harry on his wizarding adventures, it soon becomes clear that, in order to achieve his noble goals, he must avoid being watched. This is notably difficult for him, not least because Harry is famous. His teachers keep a close watch on him – eyes are everywhere. Snape and Dumbledore (both Legilimens, or mind-readers) give Harry “piercing looks” that make him squirm; Mrs Norris’s “lamp-like eyes” follow him around the school; portraits “whisper and point” at him; the Basilisk endangers him with its lethal stare; Professor Moody’s magical eye spots him in the most compromising of circumstances.

The state, too, keeps a close watch over Harry from the beginning of the series: aside from his two official notices of underage magic, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Cornelius Fudge insists Harry spend the remainder of the summer at the Leaky Cauldron as “Tom will be keeping an eye on you for me”.

For Harry, authority and surveillance go hand in hand, and both usually obstruct his various honourable attempts to protect himself and his classmates from Voldemort. It is no small wonder then that his most prized possession, gifted to him by his father via Dumbledore (perhaps the two figures he most respects), is his Invisibility Cloak. The cloak aids Harry in his defences of the Wizarding World too many times to name. In the children’s morality tale The Three Brothers, the brother that chose invisibility over immortality or great power is the one who “greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly” as “equals”: the cloak is a symbol of wisdom and goodness.

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As the series progresses, acts of surveillance become increasingly sinister, and, as Harry enters adulthood, they seem a lot less like well-meaning attempts to protect a child, and more like active attempts to thwart Harry and aid Voldemort. The Order of the Phoenix sees a shift in attention onto the government, a greater concern with surveillance, and introduces Professor Umbridge, the series’ most potent symbol of the dangers of corruption and an all-controlling state. In this book, the movements of all teachers and students in Hogwarts are monitored via the Floo Network, and owls are increasingly intercepted and searched. Harry and his peers hide themselves in a secret room in the castle, eventually caught by the menacing Inquisitorial Squad, and Harry is tortured and force-fed truth serum.

Later, the Order of the Phoenix are all watched by the Voldemort-infiltrated Ministry (“SECURITY STATUS: TRACKED. All movements are being monitored”) and have to conceal themselves at all times with increasingly complicated charms. Apparating from the Burrow, Harry, Ron and Hermione are barely on the streets of London ten minutes before they are found and nearly killed by Death Eaters. In fact, much of the seventh book is concerned with their desperate attempts to remain undetected: even saying certain words out loud will reveal their location. Magical surveillance is almost always used by and for evil.

Almost always. Of course, Harry himself engages in surveillance. When he does, he is often chastised by Hermione, who seems hyper-conscious of the dangers of him doing so. When Harry first obtains the Marauder’s Map, she objects:

“But Harry isn’t going to keep it!” said Hermione, as though the idea were ludicrous. “He’s going to hand it in to Professor McGonagall, aren’t you, Harry?”

[…]

“But what about Sirius Black?” Hermione hissed. “He could be using one of the passages on that map to get into the castle!”

She is similarly critical of his constant trailing of Malfoy in The Half-Blood Prince, and, crucially, when Harry discovers that he can access Voldemort’s mind, she, like Harry’s teachers, insists that he close his mind rather than actively attempt to see Voldemort’s thoughts. She is particularly wary of Voldemort using the link to plant false visions in Harry’s mind – essentially, of surveillance leading to false information (like GCHQ’s incorrect info on the sixth book). She’s proven right when Voldemort plants a fake vision in Harry’s mind that ultimately leads to the death of one of his closest mentors.

Rowling’s conclusions about magical surveillance therefore seem clear: it’s a powerful, dangerous tool that should be avoided at all costs. Of course, it’s not so simple. For as much as surveillance is critiqued throughout the series, it is a technique that also ultimately enables the triumph of good over evil. Harry is proven right to stalk Malfoy, and the Marauder’s Map helps him almost as often as the Invisibility Cloak.

Figures of virtue like Mad-Eye Moody and Dumbledore sometimes use similar tactics to those of the state they oppose. Dumbledore violently interrogates Barty Crouch in The Goblet of Fire, while Mad-Eye relies on his magical eye and Dark Detectors. Snape’s status as a double-agent, secretly passing over intelligence from Voldemort’s inner circle to Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix, is crucial to the downfall of the Dark Lord, and is what ultimately sees him regarded a hero.

Voldemort is essentially a terrorist, and surveillance is therefore unavoidable in bringing him down. Harry uses his ability to spy on Voldemort’s inner thoughts in the climactic events of the final book, and even Hermione sees the necessity of doing so:

She was crying too; and she wiped her face on her torn and singed sleeve as she spoke, but she took great, heaving breaths to calm herself as still keeping a tight hold on Ron she turned to Harry. “You need to find out where Voldemort is […] Do it, Harry – look inside him!”

Perhaps the series’ view on surveillance can be summed up in this moment in The Deathly Hallows, where Harry, intending to search Umbridge’s possessions, finds the door to her office at the Ministry:

Harry looked [at the door] and rage reared in him like a snake. Where there might have been a peephole on a Muggle front door, a large, round eye with a bright blue iris had been set into the wood—an eye that was shockingly familiar to anybody who had known Alastor Moody. For a split second Harry forgot where he was and what he was doing there: He even forgot that he was invisible. He strode straight over to the door to examine the eye. It was not moving: It gazed blindly upward, frozen.

 […]

He wrenched the telescope out of the door, leaving a hole behind, pulled the magical eyeball out of it, and placed it in his pocket.

The eye was formerly a natural extension of Moody’s good self. But appropriated by Umbridge, it seems disgusting, violent, and intrusive. In taking it back, and continuing with his own spying, Harry is properly restoring the moral balance.

The conclusion, then, is not that spying is always bad. In the Harry Potter books, surveillance is instead posited as extremely risky – it can often backfire, on a state level it is particularly vulnerable to corruption, and it is therefore something to be questioned at all times. But, ultimately, it is a tool: the effects of which depend on the moral intent of the people wielding it. As the people over at GCHQ, like the Order of the Phoenix, seem to hold Protect Harry Potter as their main goal in this one instance, perhaps JK Rowling would value their involvement after all.