Big Debate: Have intrusions into privacy gone too far?
“The Snooper’s Charter passed into law this week” reads one headline. “UK’s new surveillance law creates a national browser history with a search engine to match” states another. “The U.K. Just Passed the Most “Orwellian” Western Spying Bill Ever” shouts one more. You get the feeling that such a fundamentally intrusive bill would polarise parliament… You’d be wrong. Only 69 MPs voted against the Investigatory Powers Bill, 50 of which were SNP. A further 8 were Lib Dems. (That’s right, all 8 of them) How can there be such consensus among the UK’s heavyweight adversaries?
The answer as it often is with politics, is opportunism. By imposing a party line of abstention in March, Labour could, in their eyes, claim they were an avoiding an undemocratic derailment of long term government policy. As Andy Burnham said at the time, “Outright opposition, which some are proposing tonight, risks sinking the bill and leaving the interim laws in place.” Yet this doesn’t account for the party’s summertime swing to cheerleading a bill which threatens the very concept of privacy.
The powers granted by this bill are ripe for abuse; they’re fashioned, by no accident, to facilitate mass surveillance. Supporters may argue that this intrusion is benign, but to take such a statement at face value would be a gross underestimation of political pragmatism. By ushering the bill through parliament, Britain’s largest two parties have reached a mutual understanding: dissent, irrelevant of the source’s ideology, is intolerable. It’s remarkably telling that the bill’s opponents stand no chance of forming a majority government. Again, enthusiasts can contend that strong governance should be cherished, that giving anonymity a free reign encourages – even perpetuates – anarchy. But this is exactly how totalitarianism flourishes.
A culture of fear, projected by the media and feasted upon by politicians determined to centralise power, allows authoritarianism to dilate. Strong law and order is celebrated; the unknown is declared dangerous, the nameless guilty without trial. The right to privacy is condemned as a comfort of the past, a commodity no longer affordable in this climate of rampant terror. Slowly, and surely, civil liberties are eroded.
“If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear” rally the bill’s vanguard, toasting the unforeseen ease with which it slides through parliament. Bulk databases, bulk hacking, backdoors to encryption… These are the tools of repression, not the keys to freedom. Privacy has been intruded to the extent that its very definition has been mutated. “A state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people” no longer exists: Theresa May’s draconian legislation has determined that.
In an era where the line between public and private becomes blurrier with each tweet, like and share, it isn’t difficult to envision a society devoid of solitude; a transparent mass of ‘social’ success overseen by the unseen. The Investigatory Powers Bill, the most extreme online surveillance legislation in a democratic country, is the first step on this path to digital dystopia.
It is frequently thrown around that we must choose between a dichotomy of freedom and security – the implication being that increasing one inevitably reduces the other. That rhetoric seems higher now than ever: a quick Google search for the so-dubbed ‘Snooper’s’ Charter’ – the Investigatory Powers Act – reveals a litany of anti-surveillance hysteria, and virtually no evidence of anyone in favour in the media.
In reality, however, the bill passed through parliament almost unanimously. A vote in June finished with 443 MPs in favour and just 69 against – with characters ranging from Iain Duncan Smith to John McDonnell, via George Osborne and Hilary Benn, all voting for it. Far from being an authoritarian legislation pushed through by an executive trying to maximise its powers, British security systems’ influence on personal freedoms is mainstream and minimal.
This much is undeniable: some surveillance into online communication is necessary in the twenty-first century; just as in the past phone records and postal letters could be intercepted or traced by security services, so too must legislation catch up with technology. It has lagged behind for years, meaning security services lack the legal processes they need to keep us safe; the chief of MI5 recently said that “there will be a terrorist attack in this country” at some point, and it will only be made more likely if police and government authorities lack the powers they need to find plots before they happen, and bring perpetrators to justice after crimes have been committed. As communication moves online, so too must investigatory powers if security is to be defended.
And remember, security is valuable not because government agencies fetishise reading your personal messages or going through your browser history – it is because only when we are secure can we exercise our freedoms. The choice, then, is not between security and liberty but determining how much freedom we are willing to give security services to allow them to do their own jobs, in order to for us to exercise our own valuable freedoms in peace.
Second, those criticising the Act for its out-of-control surveillance powers and unlimited government invasion of privacy are clearly out of step with the analysis of those who have followed the design of the bill most closely.
Labour members of parliament initially abstained from a vote on the bill in March, with many voting against. Virtually the entire parliamentary party – with only two rebels – voted for the bill in June, not because they had somehow been persuaded that they should back the Conservatives just for the sake of it, but because the process of amendment and debate have produced an Act which is restrained and limited. Keir Starmer, now Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, has said that the government responded constructively to amending the bill and met “significant demands” to ensure the protection of human rights and privacy from arbitrary exercise of power. Warrants must be given by the Secretary of State or by a judge, and only certain limited methods of surveillance are permitted, for example interception of ‘metadata’ but not the content of communications.
The alternative is not that we all are totally free from surveillance or government authority – you can’t do anything online, after all, without some private company or other storing all manner of data on you. These powers are exercised by the security services of every country on earth – because they are absolutely essential for governments to uphold their first duty of existence, protecting its citizens, in a world of online communication. Instead, the alternative is that these powers are exercised behind the scenes, behind closed doors and outside of the realm of judicial oversight and public scrutiny. Instead, the current consensus has enshrined in statutes those practices which were already happening in practice, ensuring public transparency, ministerial accountability, and a proper due process for handling these powers.
Government policy is not malicious. Our representatives in parliament do not pass security measures because they hate our freedom or love invading our privacy; they do it because there is a widespread recognition from all parts of the political spectrum as well as from experts in the field that new powers are necessary for our security, and those powers are better held out in the open and clear on the statute books, with human rights protections built in to legislation. It is a necessary precondition for a practically free society, not an opponent of it.