Mass Surveillance: Britain’s Internet Must Remain Free

Huffington Post

Surveillance is necessary in the modern world but we must be careful not to bring Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ to life.

On 3 November, the Government published the long awaited Investigatory Powers Bill. In the words of the Queen’s Speech it “will provide the police and intelligence agencies with the tools to keep you and your family safe”.

The British public should be cautious before they accept the fear mongering which often permeates the news before security legislation is put before the Houses. “Let’s not give terrorists safe spaces to communicate” the prime ,inister, David Cameron, told ITV’s ‘This Morning’. He continued “we shouldn’t allow the internet to be a safe space for them to communicate and do bad things”.

It is difficult to argue with the points made by the Prime Minister. Nobody wants terrorists and criminals to evade justice by hiding behind a computer screen. For this reason, the Prime Minister is pushing legislation which allows security services to peruse an individual’s metadata – the who, when and how – at will, as well as intercept the content of communications after obtaining a warrant.

The argument for mass surveillance is a relatively simple one. In order to find the needle you have to have the haystack. By storing data on everybody the security services can be confident that they have the data of criminals when they need it. We are given assurances that, despite the capability to do so, nobody is reading our text messages, our emails, or listening in on our phone calls . Perhaps this is why the investigator of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, entitled his review of Britain’s investigatory powers ‘A Question Of Trust’.

Trusting that the Government and security services are open about their surveillance activities is difficult, especially after Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed the nigh-on dystopian realities of GCHQ’s capabilities. In 2013 Snowden told the Guardian newspaper “they [GCHQ] are worse than the U.S”.

One such case in point is Operation Optic Nerve, a programme which collected stills from the webcam conversations of 1.8 million users over a six month period in 2008. The images were stored regardless of whether the individual users were an intelligence target or not.

Intrusive surveillance techniques were also deployed against the mother of Stephen Lawrence, the victim of a racially motivated murder in 1993. According to various newspaper reports in 2013, a member of the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstration Squad, Peter Francis, claimed he was asked to uncover “any intelligence that could have smeared the campaign”. The campaign Mr Francis was referring to was not a terror plot or a drug deal but the pursuit of an inquiry into the institutional racism prevalent in the Metropolitan Police at the time.

When juxtaposed with the idea of bombs in the streets of London, some might consider such infringements wrong but tolerable. They might argue that wrongs will eventually be put right and, in a world where we routinely upload images of our nights out onto Facebook, how important is it if somebody in GCHQ has a our photograph?

This would be a serious misjudgment. Surveillance is not just about catching criminals and, if you’re a cynic, preventing dissidence. It impacts us all. Mass surveillance has the potential to quietly alter society’s overall behaviour, curbing our privacy and freedom of expression.

The theory of the ‘panopticon’ was propounded by the 18th Century social theorist, Jeremy Bentham. It was initially a prison design which reduced the need for watchmen. It sought to invoke a sense that inmates were constantly being watched, even when they were not and even when it was not realistically possible for them to be so. The idea, Bentham mused, was that because inmates never knew when they were being watched and when they were not, they would simply behave all of the time.

If we are not careful with how far we take online surveillance, the internet has the potential to become an incarnation of Bentham’s prison; we just wont be able to see the bars.

One of the greatest things about the internet is our newfound ability to find like-minded people; sometimes to game alongside, sometimes to debate with and sometimes to get support from. The internet has in many ways become our greatest confidant. We share our secrets with it before we raise them with our lovers, friends and family.

However, in a world where all of our data is stored how many sensitive searches will people avoid? People must be free to be able to search questions such as “how to know if you are depressed?” and seek out support from online forums, without fearing that their search will be stored and used against them. Like Bentham’s panopticon, it is not sufficient that realistically nobody will ever look – it is the sense that somebody can and might.

This was partly the reason why the European Court of Human Rights overturned the European Union’s Data Retention Directive 2006 in April 2014. The Directive required all member States to retain communications data. The Court concluded “it entails a wide-ranging and particularly serious interference with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data, without that interference being limited to what is strictly necessary”.

The European Court did not question whether surveillance is needed in the modern world, it simply stated that investigatory powers must remain proportionate. In other words, with the new-found ease of hoovering up so much data, we must prevent ourselves chasing the white rabbit too far down the hole.

The Prime Minister defended the proposed surveillance powers by saying that the internet cannot become a “safe space” for terrorists and criminals but it is wrong to compare an internet free of mass surveillance as a terrorist playground. Coffee shops are potentially a safe space for people to meet up and plot but this does not mean we should bug all public spaces.


Read more:

Camilla Wood

UK based Legal Aid Lawyer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *