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Is Britain Becoming a Surveillance State?

Are we being over-watched?

Dean Hochlaf

Naked Politics Blogger

In his Magnum Opus, 1984, George Orwell perfectly depicted the terror and tyranny of a state using mass surveillance to control every citizen. Big Brother inspired fear and the reality TV show, securing its place in the high ranks of fictional villains. For an alternative take on mass surveillance though, you may want to watch the critically acclaimed Dark Knight, where Batman uses mass surveillance (and an incredibly relaxed law enforcement agency) to foil a terrorist attack. In these two examples we have the conflict between mass surveillance advocates and critics. The battle between security and freedom. It is an argument that has once again surface in the UK, as the government attempts to push through an Investigatory Powers bill.

The new powers would allow for bulk interception of internet communications, as well as forcing private firms to be complicit in security investigations. Internet providers will be forced to store the browsing history of every citizen, to be accessed at will by the police and security forces. The government is keen to stress the safeguards of the system, with targeted searches requiring legal warrants, and the benefits of increased cyber security in combatting serious threats, such as terrorism.

However, the clandestine nature of the bill, the speed in which it is being rushed through Parliament and the question of civil liberty infringements has resulted in legions of opponents to the bill. The SNP has claimed the bill would set a “bad example” to the rest of the world. Two hundred senior lawyers and experts have condemned the bill, stating that it is “not fit for purpose” and that it could easily violate current laws regarding privacy. The bill completely avoids the topic of “reasonable suspicion”, a mainstay of our legal system. Even the special rapporteur for the UN the matter of privacy has spoken against it, warning it is “disproportionate”. Needless to say various civil liberty and human rights campaign groups have enthusiastically pointed out similar lines of argument to the government.

The critics though, are right to be worried. This bill is unprecedented, and sets us on a dangerous road to where basic civil virtues are ignored. Arguably though, Britain was set on this path long ago. CCTV is everywhere and everything you post online is accessible within just a few clicks. Technology can track your movements, private companies can aim advertising at you based on what you search online, a mass online footprint for each citizen is now alarmingly visible.

Holding the government to account, and ensuring that the rights of individuals are not infringed, is an important responsibility for people living in a democratic society. However, in the age of the internet, it is not always possible for people to be aware of the extent of surveillance and monitoring. It is also a time where fear is regularly exploited. With the threat of terrorism looming ominously over Europe, it becomes easier to convince people of the need for increased surveillance, not to destroy your rights but to protect them.

This is the wrong attitude to have though. We shouldn’t compromise on our rights and freedom out of fear. The Investigatory Powers Bill simply doesn’t include enough detailed safety measures to ensure an abuse against power. If more powers are necessary, then the must be transparent so that they can be scrutinised appropriately. At the moment, for experts and campaigners, this bill doesn’t allow this. The right to privacy should not be taken for granted. It is a right that allows free expression and criticism, invaluable for individuals and professions alike. If we are to keep our integrity, and to maintain our commitment to freedom and democracy, then this bill needs dramatically altered, so that new surveillance laws respect the rights that so many have fought for.

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