Paving the Way to a Surveillance Society

by Daniel on 07/9/2015

It is hard to ignore or escape the fact that citizen surveillance in the United Kingdom has risen significantly. Of course, surveillance is needed to protect national security, however, sacrificing the basic right to privacy need not be a natural consequence.

A number of politicians have spoken out about the need to protect one’s right to privacy, Nick Clegg commented on the irony that politicians:

“…in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then in the next advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens”.

With the rapid development of the digital world, now more than ever do those who purport to protect the interests of society need to be held accountable for decisions that blatantly undermine the right to privacy. The flood of legislation that has been seemingly rushed through Parliament needs to be examined in the context of the modern United Kingdom.

In 2012, the Communications Data Bill required those who hold data to retain it for longer periods of time than would naturally be necessary – it was blocked by the Liberal Democrats after concerns were expressed that it needed a “fundamental rethink”. The very introduction of this Bill raises questions regarding the to inevitable increase of miss-carriages of justice that would have arisen and the length that the government will go to purport to protect national security.

There has to be a balance struck between the protection of society and individual rights. A popular justification for mass surveillance is that ‘it only takes one’ to commit an unspeakable act. In a world that is increasingly suspicious, hostile and weary of others, surely increasing the amount surveillance only fuels hostility and resentment. Instead of suspicion, there should be transparency – mass surveillance does not promote this.

Even if an authority does not justify conducting surveillance with the “it is needed for the protection of national security” spiel, creative and unfounded excuses are evidently not too difficult to conjure up and subsequently mundanely approved.

In the infamous of case of Paton v Poole Borough Council, the surveillance of someone believed not to be living in the catchment area of a school was found to be unlawful. It is striking that a Local Authority believed they had the power to watch and investigate someone for such a seemingly tedious reason. Yes, the school in question was over-subscribed but surely this did not warrant an encroachment on the fundamental right to privacy.

Irrespective of this and of the initial blockage of the 2012 Bill, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 was passed. This act was passed with the backdrop of groups such as ISIS gaining popularity, countless shootings and a number of other atrocities.

The Act’s scope, like many other counter-terrorism Acts, is overly broad and will undoubtedly be used to justify arbitrary and pointless stops, searches, checks and investigations. Part 3 of the Act relates specifically to Data Retention. Unsurprisingly, this Part does not add clarity nor illustrate any particular purpose other than to expand definitions.

In light of this, it surely does only take one. However in a world with a population in excess of 7,000,000,000, such an argument undermines humanity. The United Kingdom currently has a population of just under 65,000,000 and every single one is subject to the same powers that allow the interception and storage of personal information, phone calls and supposedly private messages – yet many passively accept that it’s a part of the modern world we live in. It’s not.

It’s hard to doubt that the government and public authorities do hide behind the subconscious argument of ‘it only takes one’. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 allows ministers and public authorities to curtail certain rights to carry out surveillance.

The Act has seen just under 3,000,000 decisions which highlights the lack of protection afforded under the Act when securing individual rights. In Freedom from Suspicion – Surveillance Reform for a Digital Age, JUSTICE examined the decisions made under the act. Less than 1.5% were approved by a judge.

What’s dubbed the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, more formally know as the Investigatory Powers Bill, is yet another example of an arbitrary, far-fetched and extreme attempt to curtail our right to privacy. Nick Clegg commented that we are “threatened by a turbo-charged snooper’s charter”. The Bill requires that all messages sent and received should be accessible (with required leave). It will be interesting to see what happens to applications such as WhatsApp or messaging services such as iMessage as they both encrypt their messages – something disallowed under the Investigatory Powers Bill.

It is apparent that many people do not actually appreciate the extent of surveillance. For example, The Guardian recently reported a story in which a member of the public was ‘throttled’ by a bus driver for recording her going through a red light. The irony of this story is the fact that she was most likely caught on CCTV when she went through the red light anyway. The driver had probably been on CCTV hundreds of time before going through the light and hundreds of times after. The fact that she lashed out at a member of the public who was actively recording her suggests that we have become complacent to mass-surveillance. At the same time, however, we appear to have an issue when people actively go out of their way to record one’s actions, subconsciously reminding us that we are subject to being constantly watched – and we don’t like it.

Even if one is recording perfectly innocently in a public area (which everyone is entitled to do), the convenient Terrorism Act 2000 allows an officer to stop and question someone they believe to be “suspicious”. The Terrorism Act is a far-fetched, catch-all approach. The sardonic fact is that even whilst being stopped and questioned, one is almost certainly being recorded by CCTV. The Standard reported that despite having 1% of the world’s population, the UK has 20% of the world’s cameras. Some 4,200,000 cameras is simply ridiculous and an unnecessary expenditure. This story was reported back in 2007 so, without doubt, a current statistic would be even more alarming.

One only needs to do a quick Google search to be presented with a wealth of articles that criticise the uselessness and cost of CCTV and mass surveillance in general.

The government is not showing any indication that it has plans to reduce the increasing amount of surveillance. It is clear that in the next 5 years, the government will only introduce additional means of intercepting, collecting and storing data and communications.

We must not “sleepwalk into a surveillance society” nor acquiesce in its creation.

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