Reject the Tory attempt to build a surveillance state

Michael Shao on why the government's call for new powers should be rejected

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Isolated monitoring cameras on blue sky

The most extreme surveillance law passed in the history of history of western democracy, in the history of democracy in general, is about to get exponentially worse. Which beautiful nation has the pride to be the beholder of such a law? None other than the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland itself, where God evidently saves both the Queen and your browser history.

A draft of proposed new surveillance powers leaked last week hopes to push new conditions into the Investigatory Powers Act brought into law last year. The government is asking for Internet providers to introduce a backdoor on their networks to allow intelligence agencies to read private communications. The security issues regarding backdoors have already been debated to death and the conclusion is that they provide severe security issues and a complete end to guaranteed privacy. Apple CEO Tim Cook commented on this last year, warning of the “dire consequences” of backdoors. All communications companies, including phone networks and ISPs, will be required to provide real-time access to the full content of any single individual within one working day, as well as ambiguously phrased “secondary data” relating to that person.

As an American, such actions would at least create some semblance of uproar. Notably, following the SOPA and PIPA bills, stiff resistance from privacy advocacy groups, numbers of congressmen and senators, and huge pressure from individual citizens stopped the bill in its tracks and struck down the legislation. In the UK, crickets chirp. It does seem like there are notable differences in culture that at least contribute to the passivity of the British public. Throughout my time in the United Kingdom, both in London and Oxford, and even the suburbs, the number of CCTV cameras, everywhere, has been disturbing, and this is a notable stereotype in the United States regarding Britain. It is unheard of for such condensed university living spaces, such as individual colleges, in the United States, to have as many live camera feeds constantly operated by porters, as they do here in Oxford. In this regard, the failure of the American populous to embrace state-sponsored CCTV the way the United Kingdom has is admirable. None of this is to of course, downplay or ignore the attacks on Internet privacy that continue to happen in the United States. To that extent, I am marginally glad that Ron Paul exists, as I unfortunately fail to see a British equivalent.

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I felt genuinely uncomfortable during the first few weeks, when a splattering of CCTV cameras covered places far away from generally monitored areas like entrances and exits, in St. Edmund Hall, my college. In fact, one of the cameras has a wide pan of all of the windows of one of the large residential areas in college: we are literally being recorded as we sleep. I was furthermore astounded that the sheer capacity of it happening is not disturbing to anyone here, and that my observations were met by pure indifference. “Just close the curtains, man.” This does scale up with a more general state of surveillance in the UK, such as the proliferation of traffic cameras, the existing widespread censorship of various websites, all met by little opposition from both the public and government (the lack of opposition from government, likely being due to the passivity of their constituents).

I don’t feel like it’s necessary to even waste time arguing the “if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about” or the “nobody cares about what you’re doing” condition, because I believe that if you’ve already stooped that low, that hope is lost. I’m also not going to bother citing more specific metaphors or comparisons to Orwellian works, because those too seem to be lost in translation, given the massive acceptance of public CCTV surveillance and the sad irony of Orwell’s English citizenship. The issue is not the success of surveillance in given sugar-laced instances, such as the role that surveillance played in allowing Special Forces to catch a man outside Westminster carrying a bag of knives (which, arguably, is no more of a crime than driving a car outside of Westminster). The issue is that if the threshold of abandoning all privacy rights is knife attacks, then you might want to reassess your outlook on life. Unless, of course, we include assault forks in the threshold as well. Then I’d happily let the IPA go into action.

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There are also, of course, fundamental conflicts in the nature of public opinion on Internet privacy. In the name of supposedly preventing terrorism, many individuals are willing to give up the undying individual freedoms that they so cherish, or at least, claim to cherish. My synthesis of the commentary on Internet privacy issues from British politicians is a teaching to fear the boogeyman far more than to yearn for human rights and privacy, and to even promote the idea of a “British-specific notion of human rights”. There is a conditioning to truly make British citizens believe that terrorists will be caught in their droves, audio streams implanted wont be used for snooping, that the data they willingly and potentially, legally hand over to the surveillance state wont be sold, or hacked, or worse, due to the infinitely benevolent nature of the government.

Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that the incumbent government is pushing through as much controversial policy as possible while they retain such a high majority in parliament. Recently, sentiments surrounding the results of the French presidential election have been surrounded with optimism, on the positive state of affairs and the possibility of an avoidance of the previously cited domino effect: the “domino defect” of Brexit. I, am optimistic about their optimism, but not with increasing pessimism that this progress seems to be limited, for the time being, to Europe, the UK no longer being a part of it. The likely future of an even more powerful conservative majority following the general election, a full completion of Brexit conditions, and therefore an abandonment of CJEU rulings on Internet privacy, and even a possible leave from the EHCR, is depressing beyond belief. For this, I do not have much to say. I don’t know, instead of the Tory’s, give Tor a try?