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Opinion: Surveillance Britain, nothing to fear? Think again

We need to act fast to defend our civil liberties or, like the frog in the pot, we could too late find ourselves in a very different climate.


We need to act fast to defend our civil liberties or, like the frog in the pot, we could be too late and find ourselves in a very different climate.

Illustration: Liane Aviram

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Across the political rainbow, plenty believe that in terms of state surveillance on its citizens, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. If true, the maxim, sometimes attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, should apply as equally to the security services as to anyone else.

Whistle-blower Edward Snowden has an eloquent response to the nothing to hide argument, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Criticism of surveillance is often rubbished as unnecessary, picking on stretched security services that are just trying to defend us against growing threats. Take Tony Carey, the Conservative councillor for Brislington East, who commented on a Bristol Cable Facebook video about the issue. He said, “Why should I assist illegal immigrants and terrorists to operate with impunity by hamstringing those whose job it is to keep us safe? If you don’t like it don’t use a phone or iPad. It’s simple really.”

Carey’s comment reflects a common blasé attitude towards our civil rights, but many in Bristol are concerned by increased surveillance powers. Bristol West had the highest number of signatories of all constituencies nationwide in a 2016 petition to repeal the Investigatory Powers Act – aka the Snoopers Charter – which granted the government new far-reaching surveillance powers.

And while surveillance might still seem hypothetical to some, it’s most definitely already being used in ways that should concern everyone. As reported by the Cable, Avon and Somerset and at least six other police forces have stayed silent on their use of IMSI-catchers, a powerful tool that can spy on thousands of mobile phones at any one time.

The Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Avon and Somerset Constabulary, Sue Mountstevens, refused to be interviewed by the Cable on the use of the spying technology, saying, “It’s important to me, as I am sure it is to you, that our journalists are free to question institutional and political processes and it is right and appropriate that you raise these issues. I have nothing further to say on this issue and do not believe it warrants an interview.”

However, police documents have revealed that PCCs are the very ones approving the purchases. Mountstevens saying she has nothing to say about this is – excuse the pun – a bit of a cop out. PCCs have a duty ‘to be the voice of the people and hold the police to account’. But in this case they are falling short and risk, instead, becoming rubber stampers for the police during a period of rapid change.

Is this a paranoid doomsday vision of modern Britain? Unfortunately not.

Arguably, as crime grows increasingly sophisticated, police need to do all they can to stay ahead of the curve. But can Avon and Somerset Constabulary legitimately stay schtum about their methods on the grounds that transparency will harm operations?

After all, shoplifters who know of CCTV still shoplift and still get recorded. And crims of all ilks have long known that mobile phone snooping is a risk when they go about their business. Even the use of ‘burner phones’ to dodge police phone tapping has entered the English lexicon after TV hits like The Wire.

It looks like Britain has become a playground for corporations selling technologies to police, giving them unprecedented access to people’s lives. While ‘Stop and Search’ happens more or less in plain sight, police forces are quickly and quietly becoming equipped with far more intrusive ways of searching us; from kit that can hack phones and computers, to facial recognition software for crowds.

Is this a paranoid doomsday vision of modern Britain? Unfortunately not. While Theresa May’s government may be incapable of holding together a full cabinet, that shouldn’t distract one from their surveillance powers.

For instance, we have long had a data sharing agreement within the Five Eyes – the allied intelligence agencies of the UK, United States, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. This means that Donald Trump’s government has access to all data collected on British citizens, including from Facebook, Skype, emails, online history and much more. And with Brexit on the horizon, what surveillance methods are in store for immigrants who are no longer deemed ‘legal’, let alone asylum seekers and other ‘economic migrants’?

Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert, says that widespread police surveillance is the definition of a police state, “That’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.” We may not be there yet, but it is worrying that evidence of controversial and illegal police surveillance in the UK is in abundance.

Last year Cleveland Police admitted to using anti-terror laws to spy on five journalists and uncover their sources. And they’re not alone. In 2015 it was revealed that police forces around the country had accessed the call records of 82 journalists over the previous three years.

It also emerged last year that Jeremy Corbyn had been monitored by undercover police for two decades for his human rights campaigning. In 2016, Green Peer Jenny Jones demanded an inquiry into claims that a secretive Scotland Yard intelligence unit had spied on her and then destroyed files to hide the scale of the surveillance. In 2014 it was revealed that an undercover officer spied on the grieving family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. The list goes on.

And yet, the issue here is less about police misconduct and more about a vexed political climate changing the very definitions of threats. While it seems every government brings its own definitions of innocence and extremism, state surveillance capabilities only enhance.

With the goalposts of justice constantly in flux, we cannot solely rely on institutionalized checks and balances to watch the watchers. We need a strong movement from below to ensure that our civil liberties are upheld. As Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th Century French clergyman, incisively wrote, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.”

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