Last Wednesday I arranged for Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, to give a talk to Open Rights Group Birmingham about the threat mass surveillance poses to our human rights and democratic society.
I was spurred on to organise the talk because of the UK government’s plans to introduce new surveillance legislation this autumn, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, which will (amongst other things) give the government legal power to collect, analyse and retain in a gigantic database for 12 months everyone’s electronic communications interactions (phone, email, web history, text and WhatsApp messages, etc) regardless of whether you are suspected of committing a crime.
The surveillance debate – even boring by C-SPAN standards?
Cleverly, the government has managed to couch the surveillance debate in language that is, to quote Jon Oliver, “even boring by C-Spann standards”. Talk of bulk data collection is more likely to evoke a service your local council might offer to help you get rid of an old mattress than a scene from The Lives of Others. And even if you can get your head around the opaque language being used, most of the attention in the debate focuses on the (rightly) emotive issues of terrorism and serious crime, leaving little time to consider the effect mass surveillance has on innocent citizens and the health of our democratic society.
In the interests of balancing out the surveillance debate , I’d like to borrow liberally from Jim’s talk to share with you 3 reasons why you should be worried about the government’s plans, especially if you think the Investigatory Powers Bill won’t affect you.
1. Mass surveillance undermines democratic accountability
Up until last week, MPs and members of the House of Lords believed their communications were protected by the so-called ‘Wilson Doctrine’ and so were not subject to the same eavesdropping as the rest of the general population.
Last week, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal announced these assurances had been:
“a political statement in a political context, encompassing the ambiguity that is sometimes to be found in political statements”
Furthermore, even if the statements of protection had been given in good faith, it is not technically possible to offer these assurances in an era of bulk data collection of the entire population’s electronic communications.
The tribunal’s ruling has, predictably, led to much soul searching by politicians of all stripes, with Labour’s Chris Bryant even managing to secure an emergency debate on the issue on Monday.
For me, the confusion caused by the ruling reveals the extent to which the surveillance agenda has managed to circumvent conventional democratic accountability.
Essentially, all of us, including the vast majority of elected politicians, are told to trust the authorities who tell us mass surveillance is necessary to protect national security and not to ask too many questions.
In this culture of secrecy, asking questions is deemed to be undermining the effectiveness of the authorities’ work and giving tacit cover or support for terrorists. Consequently, it becomes impossible to have an open, democratic debate about how we best go about balancing the security needs of our country with respect for our human rights.
We should be extremely wary of allowing the Investigatory Powers Bill to pass without having an open and democratic debate about the kind of country we want to live in and where the balance lies between the powers of the state and the rights of individual citizens.
2. The Investigatory Powers Bill will undermine the free press and civil society
While you may feel you don’t have much to worry about in terms of the authorities accessing your records, there are and will always be people who do need privacy protection.
Journalists need privacy protection. Imagine, for example, you are a journalist and you have received a tip off about Police wrongdoing. Would you be brave enough to investigate the allegation if you thought your communications could be accessed by the very same organisation?
This is precisely what happened in the case of the Plebgate scandal.The Metropolitan Police were able to use existing surveillance legislation known as Ripa, which was intended to be used in terrorism cases, to access the mobile phone records of The Sun’s political editor without first getting a warrant. By doing so, they were able to discover which officers inside the police had been talking to the journalist and take disciplinary action against them.
Whatever you think of The Sun and Rupert Murdoch’s News International operations, I hope you’ll agree that it’s not right that the UK’s surveillance legislation can be used to hamper the media. If that is what is possible under today’s legislation, we should think carefully before expanding the amount of data authorities can gather on all of us.
Even if you think that journalists by virtue of the job they do are fair game for the authorities, their sources still need to be protected. The Investigatory Powers Bill, by expanding data collection and giving the police and other authorities more rights of access, will make normal, everyday people more reluctant to come forward and report wrongdoing.
3. Mass surveillance is a golden opportunity for criminals
Even if you are personally comfortable with the idea of the government passing more surveillance legislation without proper democratic debate and don’t care all that much about the rights of journalists and whistleblowers, chances are you wouldn’t be too keen about criminals getting hold of your personal information.
By obliging Internet Service Providers and other communications companies to collect greater amounts of personal data and store it for longer periods of time, the government risks creating more tempting opportunities for criminals to steal our data and use it to facilitate a range of crimes.
As well as increasing the total amount of personal information for criminals to target, government efforts to weaken encryption will make it easier for criminals to break into that data. While the government may wish to believe it can demand a special key or ‘backdoor’ to unlock encrypted that only it can use, the reality is criminals will discover this vulnerability and, in so doing, undermine the encryption that not only protects our privacy but is essential for online banking and secure e-commerce payments.