Turning the internet into a police state
A government that said it’d be ‘strong in defence of freedom’ now wants to spy on everything we do online.
‘We will be strong in defence of freedom’, the UK coalition government declared in its founding agreement before taking power. ‘The British state’, it continued, ‘has become too authoritarian, and… over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. We need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power…’
That was May 2010. Now, less than two years on, The Sunday Times has revealed that the UK government is planning to extend its surveillance powers to be able to track all of our web, email, text and phone usage in real-time. While not allowing the government to access the content of the communications without a permit, it will, as the former shadow home secretary, Conservative MP David Davis, argued yesterday, give the state ‘unfettered access to every single communication’ we make. This is coming from the Lib-Con government that stated from the outset that it would, ‘end the storage of internet and email records without good reason’. What, other than the entire Cabinet suffering from near-total amnesia, could possibly have caused such a complete abandonment of principles?
Since the story broke, government officials have hardly been rushing to justify the need for the policy. The best the BBC’s flagship Today programme could muster was a hideously embarrassing appearance from Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, who claimed: ‘It needs to be done because it can be done, and because 2012 could possibly be an extremely dangerous year for the UK. We’ve got the Olympics, of course, we’ve also got the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.’ Glees’ fearful imaginings didn’t stop there: ‘I think we have to understand, not least after the killings 10 days ago in Toulouse, that there are some very dangerous people out there, they do communicate with each other.’
In responding to Glees’ comments, Davis landed two knockout blows. He pointed out that the legislation couldn’t now be implemented until late 2013 – missing both the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee – and that the French government already had similar surveillance powers, but these failed to stop those horrific murders at a Jewish school in Toulouse last month.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg opted for denial, claiming in an interview with the Telegraph that: ‘All we are doing is updating the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals and updating that to apply to technology like Skype which is increasingly being used by people who want to make those calls and send those emails.’ He even played the pedant, suggesting that there’s a significant difference between a centralised government database of communications and mandating internet service providers to store the data themselves – for the government to then still plough through. In a Liberal Democrat briefing seen by spiked, changes to the law are deemed to be necessary in order to keep up with developments in technology that are apparently allowing ‘criminals, terrorists and paedophiles’ to operate undetected.
So in order to combat this axis of evildoers, everyone in the UK has to allow the state free rein to observe when we send messages, who we send messages to and every web address that we visit. It will even record where we are when we make the communication. Make no mistake, this would completely transform the nature of our online experience. Should the Bill pass, then when we go online we would do so with the awareness that privacy is non-existent. Every site we looked at would be logged. Every time we messaged someone on Facebook, the state would know. The authorities would collect the names of everyone we emailed. The internet would be transformed from a relatively free public sphere into a virtual police state, where we go about our business knowing that our movements are being watched every step of the way. Any semblance of intimacy online would be zapped by the awareness that communications with friends, family and colleagues are no longer just between us. State officials would know the interaction is taking place and, should they want to pry further, could get a warrant to examine the content.
That such an unprecedented violation of our individual sovereignty online is dismissed as a mere tweaking of existing rules by government ministers – ministers who only two years ago put civil liberties at the forefront of their programme for government – should be cause for alarm. In many ways the scariest thing is that government ministers are not motivated by some Stalinist desire to tame the ‘Wild West Web’ once and for all. Rather they are so blind to the implications of the technocratic policies their advisers are proposing that they have failed to see what the problem is.
The reaction to the proposals from MPs, the media and by people online has been so hostile that there is already speculation that the plans will be kicked into the long grass. The Twitterati have predictably been up in arms, and the #TellDaveEverything hashtag has been trending, with thousands of users tweeting intimate and banal details about their lives to bring home the kind of information the government would have access to should the Bill go through. (Although this protest is admittedly diminished somewhat by the fact that Twitterers normally share this level of banal and intimate information anyway.)
It should be noted, however, that given the unprecedented level of snitching to the police by Twitter users, government monitoring of that sphere could soon be rendered superfluous thanks to an army of online narks. Only yesterday it was announced that a 17-year-old Liverpool fan was being investigated for racially abusing a footballer after a Twittermob complained to the police, which follows last week’s imprisonment of Swansea student Liam Stacey for 56 days after he was reported for making ‘aggravating’ tweets about injured footballer Fabrice Muamba.
It is also striking that while certain commentators at the Guardian now bemoan the Lib-Con’s ‘journey towards a surveillance state’, in the past, the paper has been happy implicitly to encourage this proposed Bill’s predecessor, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), against other journalists. Having been a cheerleader for such surveillance policies when it suits in the past, the paper has somewhat shot itself in the foot now similar policies that it dislikes are emerging.
‘We will be strong in defence of freedom’, the coalition declared. Given these proposals to spy on our online activities, members of the government should be ashamed to have moved so far from this commitment. The massive erosion of privacy these proposals will usher in will diminish our relationships with others, a sizable proportion of which now take place online. They will also affect the way we use new technologies in a very real way – people act differently when they know the eyes of the state are upon them. Strong in defence of freedom? What a lame promise that turned out to be.