In November 2016, while western audiences were still transfixed by the US election results, the UK government finally approved a draconian bill that diminishes our most basic human right to privacy.
The Investigatory Powers Act, or “Snoopers Charter”, is an act passed by parliament to provide government agencies with unprecedented access to personal data of every person in the UK. Included in the the data to be made available is your internet browsing history (along with your social media and chat sessions), and communications data from your mobile phone and emails. This data will be accessible to members of over 40 government authorities, including the Food Standards Agency — without the need for a warrant.
More recently, the European Court of Justice has ruled this “general and indiscriminate retention” of emails and electronic communications by governments as illegal, but given the unfortunate timing of Brexit, there is little chance that this ruling will have any effect.
Arguably, though, what’s most stupefying about this whole ordeal, is the apathy and doublethink that has emerged among the British public in justifying this move.
When discussions inevitably opened up on social media about this bill, the dominant assenting argument was clear: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about”. And Facebook and Twitter users alike were happy to boast that they themselves welcome the bill because they indeed have “nothing to hide”.
While it is reassuring to be reminded that the people around us are all upright, honest, law abiding folk, the idea that only those who are involved in some dark, nefarious schemes should be interested in privacy is a toxic one — one that plays into the hands of the most authoritarian political interests.
The climate of fear
In the current political climate, terror is very much top-of-mind for many people, both in the UK and in other countries. Right now, families are still mourning their loss from the Berlin truck attack (Germany), the Botroseya Church bombing (Egypt), Madagali suicide bombings (Nigeria), Al-Karak attack (Jordan), and the Istanbul Bombings (Turkey) — all of which happened earlier this month.
The UK has been more fortunate than other countries, and your odds of being killed by a terrorist in the UK are still about the same as dying in a plane crash or being struck by lightning. However, terrorism is a very real threat, and the case for having security forces capable of protecting our country should not be made lightly.
Many, including the Cabinet, argue that security forces need the additional powers introduced by this bill, in order to keep the British public safe from terror. In reality though, this argument is a red herring, because the forces who deal with extremely serious crimes already have the powers they require.
According to Brian Paddick, Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary and police officer of 31 years (who opposed the bill):
“…I was told by the security and intelligence agencies they did not want and did not need ICRs [internet connection records] in order to keep us safe… Law enforcement agencies, mainly the police, claim they need ICRs, even though they do not have them now and there are serious doubts that they will be of any practical use. How then, can such a massive invasion of people’s privacy be justified, when serious crime and terrorism can be successfully tackled without ICRs?”
Critics of the Snooper’s Charter have raised concerns that these new powers could be used to monitor those suspected of even the most minor crimes. While this might sound like a far-fetched conspiracy theory to some, local governemnts have already been caught abusing RIPA, The Snooper’s Charter’s predecesor, to monitor those suspected of offences as minor as dog fouling or fly-tipping.
Of course, serious crimes do occur. But as commentators have pointed out, it’s not the lack of intelligence data that allows these crimes to occur, but usually a lack of resources that make it increasingly harder for police forces to deal with the volume of cases in front of them.
We might wonder, then, why the government would prefer to spend billions of pounds on implementing this bill instead of investing in more police resources.
We must also consider the inevitable arms race that these developments incur. As the means to catch criminals become more advanced, so then do the criminals become better at covering their tracks and hiding.
“[The] problem is that once you are into a surveillance solution, it becomes in a sense expansionary to a huge degree. If you see that information is what you need to solve a problem but you do not quite know what that problem is and you do not know what future events you are going to be responding to, the temptation is to collect all information about all people”
— Professor Clive Norris, Dep. Director of Sheffield University Centre for Criminological Research
Making us all more vulnerable
Ramping up internet surveillance will likely have little effect in preventing serious crime, but it may have a harmful social impact on law abiding citizens. An important part of personal well-being is that individuals have a safe and private sphere in which to communicate, and process information. It is impossible to do so when so much of our private behaviour is made directly accessibly by potentially thousands of government employees.
Since recent events have proven that even tech giants and government organisations are routinely susceptible to malicious hackers and security leaks, there is nothing to offer any assurance that the sensitive, personal data of law-abiding citizens will not be leaked, en masse, at some point future.
Inevitable information leaks aside, mass surveillance is also likely to control and restrict user behaviour, since people now have a sense they are being constantly monitored. While this may lead to a reduction in internet crime, it will also restrict people from seeking much-needed, confidential support from online social groups, information websites, and help organisations.
Recent studies have shown that when people believe they are being monitored online, their behaviour changes to become more meek and conforming, and less likely to seek information on potentially controversial or embarrassing topics. This includes Google searches for terms like “abortion”, “alcoholics anonymous”, “coming out”, “shrink”[psychotherapist], “atheism”, “online dating”, and “Nickelback”.
Those who might need privacy
To those with “nothing to hide”, it might be a useful thought exercise to step out of oneself for a moment and put yourself in the shoes of another person.
There is a myriad of personal problems that a law-abiding individual might be dealing with in which privacy is necessary for that person to proceed with dignity and confidence. The reassurance of discretion may be essential to a person even seeking help in the first place.
The following is a list of just a few examples in which privacy might be important to someone, even though they are not breaking the law. Most of these examples are inspired by real life cases.
Someone who seeks to leave an abusive partner — The statistics for domestic abuse in the UK are harrowing. 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be affected by domestic abuse in their lifetime, and when they do, there are often psychological factors that may prevent them from leaving those situations without strong external support. The abuse may even increase, should the abuser become aware that the victim has sought outside support, and/or plans to leave. The importance of a victim being able to seek help discretely should be recognisable to everyone.
An addict seeking support — Many of us struggle with managing daily stress. For some people, turning to alcohol and drugs can seem like a solution, but one that grows out of control. With help, addicts can recover from addiction, but they can also face a great deal of stigma and rejection for their condition. Internet forums and information websites may provide the initial support an alcoholic or drug addict needs to help themselves recover and rehabilitate.
Someone struggling with severe depression — Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK, and the biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide. Many people today are suffering from severe depression and other mental health issues that can lead to suicide if not treated. Many feel ashamed to speak up about mental illness, because they may wish to (for personal or professional reasons) avoid the stigma that so often goes with it. For those dealing with severe depression, the assurance of privacy may be vital to them seeking help in time.
A young, gay christian — There are Christian communities in the U.K. who view homosexuality as immoral—something that must be “prayed away”. As a result, many gay Christians have to hide the truth about their sexuality from their families and communities for part of, or all of their lives. Those who do come out about their sexuality may risk being ostracised or even persecuted by their own community. For these individuals, personal privacy might be required for them to continue to live a “normal”, albeit secretive life.
An author working on a new version of her book — Artists, particularly those in the public light, may need to go to great lengths to ensure their work remains private until they are ready to release it to the public. Failure to do so could mean the loss of income.
A person who has recently contracted a serious illness — Every year in the UK there are thousands of new cases of cancer, blood-borne infections, and other serious illnesses. Although treatable, these diseases can be very limiting to a person’s lifestyle, and some bring a degree of social stigma which adds complications to an already difficult problem. Patients who have been diagnosed with such serious illness should be able to seek information and support forums online, or via phone and email, while safe in the knowledge that their privacy is being respected.
An entrepreneur with an innovative idea — Like artists, entrepreneurs developing innovations will often go to great lengths to ensure their idea is kept private until they are ready to release it to the public. Businesses will often use various means of communication to share R&D information, the protection of which may be worth millions of pounds.
A Muslim apostate — In Islam, the penalty for distancing oneself can be heavy. Even in the UK, individuals have been threatened with death by their own family and friends for converting from the faith. Recent polls show that 36% of young, British Muslims agree that the punishment for converting from Islam should be death. As well as the right to privacy, the European Convention on Human Rights also secures an individual’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Here then, we can see how protecting ones right to privacy may be essential in protecting their other basic human rights too.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and you might find it fun trying to come up with your own additions. There will be plenty to find.
A fundamental human right
The right to privacy is a fundamental one that most people understand intuitively. We know that it’s wrong to read someone’s diary or to eavesdrop on a sensitive conversation, and it can be a criminal offence to open another person’s mail. Why then, have we grown so apathetic as to allow the indiscriminate surveillance of all of our communications by a government that repeatedly acts to serve its own interests?
The human rights we enjoy today are as the result of long and often bloody struggles by countless people over hundreds of years, to help steer us towards a fairer society. They did not come cheap, and when we compare the UK to other countries in the world, it’s easy to appreciate that we are lucky to have these rights.
Protecting the established rights of every individual, including the right to privacy, should be of utmost importance to all of us, because these rights are the safeguards that protect us from abuses of power.
To those with “nothing to hide”, consider that we share this country with 65 million others. Some individuals face challenges in their life that are vastly different to your own. Provided with the right opportunity, most people will seek solutions to their problems to improve their condition, but for many, the assurance of privacy is an essential part of that process.
Our current government seems intent on taking away this fundamental right, without which we can no longer protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
…and rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges! That’s all we’ve ever had in this country, a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news, even badly, you will know the list gets shorter, and shorter and shorter.
— George Carlin
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