The mobile phones, laptops, desktops and GPS devices that you and I use every single day provide tremendous opportunities. In the year of my father’s birth (1951) had I stopped a man in the street and told him that his children and grandchildren would one day carry almost all information and data in existence in their jeans’ pockets he would have looked at me like I was unbalanced. What we now also know however is that whilst we are looking at our mobiles phones they are looking back at us and recording our every word and action. We too know that when entrusting every detail of our lives to a computer we invite this upon ourselves.
The panopticon is an idea in which due to clever design one prison guard can at any time see any prisoner in his cell but the prisoner never knows if he or she is being watched. As a result, the prisoner alters his or her behaviour. Picture this on a massive scale and we have state surveillance in 2016. The Snowden revelations showed us that any of us may be being watched at any time but we will never know it.
Today in the UK we are debating the nuances of the issue with the ‘snooper’s charter’. The ‘snooper’s charter’ gives police greater powers to hack into mobile phones, view browser histories and perhaps most significantly undermines the common man’s last defence against surveillance. Encryption. The act forces ISPs to weaken or break their own encryption at the state’s request. Edward Snowden claimed encryption was a reliable way to resist surveillance. If the state can simply wish it away, we are in effect defenceless. Surely by accepting this we accept a form of voluntary servitude. There is no precedent for absolute surveillance (Of which we know) and its value is of question. Mass surveillance did nothing to prevent the recent attacks in Paris and Brussells.
Edward Snowden claimed that the British security services operate an intelligence gathering regime in which “anything goes” (Cadwalladr, 2014). We would do well to ask ourselves if the authorities can be trusted to use this data responsibly or effectively. Data in a networked environment is often intangible and a lack of expertise in the area makes surveillance of online communications fraught with difficulty.
To seize data is easy, any police department can do that, but to then access and analyse it is a different matter. Afterall, the internet isn’t merely a way to communicate. How we interact online is produced by and produces cultural and social practices that are not understood by academics or law enforecment. Is it wise that this online data be used against us in a court of law, to send us to prision and placed in the national press until we as a society really understand it.
In a democratic society based on the rights of the individual using the entire citizenry as a means to an end, by observing us all, whether it be in the prevention of a minor or major offense cannot be justified without a fundamental shift in what democracy and the rights of the individual are and why they exist. This is Kantian thinking and is the ideological pillar on which many of our core democratic principles are based. If we allow ourselves to become perpetual instruments of law enforcement we consent to a shift of narrative within our socio-political society.
This may have already happened. The global intelligence regime is growing despite the overwhelming dissaproval of the public. A poll conducted across 13 countries by Amnesty International found that 71% of 15,000 respondents strongly opposed government spying on their phone and internet communications (Amnesty International, 2015).
In opposition to this view one may state these laws exist to protect us. But I ask who is the state to protect us in exchange for our rights. Or perhaps these programmes simply exist for our peace of mind, but I then ask, who the state is to assume what brings you and I peace of mind. The Kantian line of thought would lead us to the view that guaranteeing security is the state’s responsibility but guaranteeing contentment requires the state to assume what we as individuals think and maunfacture our ideas of happiness. A bizarre kind of tyranny.
If we all agree that mass surveillance is morally wrong in and of itself then it should not be used. We would be much better served debating constitutional issues from this principled perspective as opposed to a pragmatic one as there is always a reason flop on our principles. The does not mean we should always do so.
This goes back further than 9/11 and is related to a culture of control that can be traced back several decades. The threat posed by the Soviet Union was far greater and potentially far more dangerous than that we face today from Daesh and the Al Nusra Front. The reason these powers are required today has little to do with the scale of the threat and more to do with this need for control.
The UK has gone one an interesting journey since the Computer Misuse Act of 1990 which outlawed unauthorised access to a computer. The Terrorism Act of 2000 outlawed the use of a computer to glorify or promote terrorism and now, in 2016, the state is reserving the neo-unconditional right to access the data of any man or women in the name of stopping terrorism. An interesting, interconnected series of acts and manifestation of our government’s growing paranoia. Of note is the fact that the first cases of people being jailed under the Computer Misuse Act were as recent as 2013. This has real world consecuences. In 2012 the monitoring of communications by the security services led to five wrongful arrests in the UK.
Being perpetually aware that you may be being watched is enough to significantly alter human behaviour and what it means to be human in the internet age. State access to such a massive amount of data has not prevented some of the biggest terrorist attacks of our time, has led to gross abuses of power and will be misused and misunderstood until we as a society can better understand it.
In 2004 Richard Thomas, UK Information Commissioner, warned us of sleepwalking into a surveillance society. We may already be here.
State Surveillance: The bogeyman of our time?
In Response to ‘State Surveillance: Mass surveillance, its impact and the principles we claim to uphold’.
Did you ever get the feeling that someone was watching you? Did you act differently as a result? Maybe they were. But that’s not the point. Rather, the point is that it is natural to, every now and again, feel that. Paranoia over state surveillance has become the cultural bogeyman of our time. In reality, little has changed since the 1980s.
Credit cards, Oyster cards, log-in IDs and home security cameras are essentially a willing acceptance of surveillance that the state has always had the power to exploit and we said nothing. Police have been able to hack into mobile phones for years and as for private companies breaking encyption on request; private companies have and will be obliging to government whether formalised or not.
In the first 6 months of 2015 Apple provided information requested by the British government in 56% of cases relating to a device and 63% of cases in relation to a customer’s account, Google did the same in 75% of cases, Facebook in 78% of cases and Twitter in 52% of cases (Whitehead, 2016).
The author of ‘State Surveillance: Mass surveillance, its impact and the principles we claim to uphold’ cites the fact that ISPs will retain our data for one year under the terms of the Investigatory Powers Bill. If you have ever used an Oyster card you may know that information regarding any given journey on any given day was kept for eight weeks following your journey. What’s more, this information was useful to law enforcement.
So, what’s new? Rather than entering a dark new era resembling Orwell’s ‘1984’ the Investigatory Powers Bill merely makes the existing surveillance regime relevant in 2016.
We must not pretend that surveillance has no purpose. In ‘State Surveillance: Mass surveillance, its impact and the principles we claim to uphold’ it was suggested that perhaps these programmes exist to make us, the public, feel better and Kantian logic was used to put forward the view that the state has no right to decide what should make us happy. What is not mentioned is that the security services foiled 7 major terrorist attacks on UK soil between November 2014 and November 2015 by Daesh alone. In this time Paris saw the Charlie Hebdo massacre and later the tragic deaths of 130 people. Perhaps this is related to the ‘anything goes’(Cadwalladr, 2014) oversight regime our intelligence services enjoy as cited in that article. Perhaps it is mere coincidence that this is the case. But we have been presented with nothing to suggest it is.
Furthermore, he cannot seriously suggest that linguistics experts in conjunction with IT and communications professors from our finest universities cannot decipher the meanings of online communications. Is, for example, the innermost meaning of ‘meet me outside the train station at 8’ beyond the comprehension of MI5? I think not. What is beyond question is that this information could be essential in foiling a terrorist attack at Knightsbridge Station or Manchester Piccadilly.
As for the possibility of abuse of the system, this has always existed. However, even if theoretically possible it is beyond paranoid to believe that these brave men and women have the time or inclination to watch the 87 year-old Mrs. Griffith walking home from the supermarket. Mrs. Griffith’s freedom and agency to do as wishes, say what she wishes and express what she feels is protected under the Human Rights Act of 1998 and if she were to do something sinister it is better that she be reprimanded. Accepting that the state has any authority implies a kind of voluntary servitude. This does not make us slaves.
Furthermore, the s philosophical arguments in ‘State Surveillance: Mass Surveillance, its impact and the principles we claim to uphold’ simply cannot be applied to the modern world. If citizens should not be used as a means to an end the police should cease all covert operations. On top of this, whilst of intellectual interest his assertion that government attempting to make us happy is a ‘kind of tyranny’ is curious to say the least. If so, David Cameron’s attempt to ‘make happiness the new GDP’ represented the theft of our civil rights.
Utilitarianism is not of the same mind as Kantianism and would claim that all actions should, directly or indirectly, promote human wellbeing. If a programme, effective or not, causes the population to feel safer, lowers anxiety and by extension allows us to live our lives in a more productive and contented manner surely this programme is a good thing. Social Contract theory –as prominent as the Kantian theory used by the author of the article in question- suggests that we must, through a cost-benefit analysis decide what is an is not reasonable. In a representative democracy this is the job of parliament and all standard operating procedures have been followed regarding the so called ‘snooper’s charter’.
The Investigatory Powers Bill is not the ideological or philosophical shift the author of ‘State Surveillance: Mass surveillance, its impact and the principles we claim to uphold’ would have us believe. Government surveillance should be taken seriously by us all and the potential for abuses is never to be ignored. But simply approaching any debate from a natural disposition of mistrust and suspicion is not the way for us as a society to make reasonable, responsible collective decisions on the nature of liberty, privacy and appropriate measures taken to protect us all.
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