Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear

'Surveillance in NYC's Financial District' Credit - Jonathan McIntosh

This is a first in a series of articles on “Technology and Our Rights: Safeguarding Liberty in the Digital Age”. 

In the last few decades, the computer industry and its innovative technology has experienced significant rise in adoption and acceptance into society. Thanks to internet and technology giants like Facebook, Apple and Google, smartphone technology and social media platforms, have become integral to the way we communicate with each other and with the world. Technology has become part and parcel of what it is to be human.

We as a society have willingly adopted technology, ingrained it into the fabric of our lives and made it vital to our societal functioning. However, we as both individuals and as a society have not taken the time to step back and look at how our rights and liberties are being protected and secured within the digital age.

Technology has become part and parcel of what it is to be human

As students, there has never been a world known without the internet. The internet is one of mankind’s greatest creations. It is a portal to free and fair discussion, where people, regardless of who they were, could discuss ideas with anyone, at any time, all the time. However, this free world of free flowing information and discussion has been hijacked and corrupted by those seeking to police and monitor it.

There have been few events which have forced society to take a step back and look at the state of our online rights. However within the last few years, events such as the Edward Snowden revelations 2013, the current encryption battle between Apple and the FBI and Theresa May’s attempt to pass through the Investigatory Powers Bill, The Worldly takes the opportunity to take a look at the nature of rights in the digital age.

A common response to the issue of government surveillance, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and GCHQ’s communication intercept programme, is that if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.

This is the incredibly worrying response which is pervasive within society. It showcases that people in theory are willing to sacrifice basic liberties for collective security. This opinion tends to align with the government’s justification for these programmes, and any other programme which showcases the dark side of western democracy, which is the message of “national security”.

The “national security” rhetoric has been used primarily by the British and American governments in the wake of 9/11. Western governments have argued that surveillance programmes have and will protect citizens around the world and prevent terrorism.

Governments have committed to bypassing a lawful and judicial process of checks and balances

However this argument has no evidence to support it. This was the same argument used by the Bush Administration when they were caught spying on citizens without getting warrants from courts and secret courts to justify their policies. Governments have committed to bypassing a lawful and judicial process of checks and balances, designed to prevent an abuse of these security powers.

The government gets away with these actions by claiming there are constant and encompassing terrorist threats. The hope being that this will scare the public enough to stop any person, both the public as well as government committees, from keeping these organisations accountable, therefore allowing them to operate in the dark without any transparency and with full impunity.

The ACLU reported back in 2013 that these surveillance programmes were “beyond Orwellian”. If we live within a political society and system in which our government prioritises security over liberties, whether the justification of national security is true or not, then by definition we live in a police state. People commonly think of authoritarian and totalitarian states as systems only found in Russia or North Korea, however the characteristics of the American and British governments are similar, considering their overwhelming, all-encompassing surveillance programmes.

That is not to say there not major threats in the world. The events of the last few decades, most recently the Paris attacks 2015, have caused a massive strain on the victim nations. However, these governments have used these events and their emotional resonance, to justify these massive infringements on our privacy.

Dubbed the “snooper’s charter”, the Investigatory Powers Bill has received much criticism from Silicon Valley giants. Facebook, Google and Microsoft have all voiced issues with the bill, maintaining that they are committed to protecting their user’s privacy. May has suggested that the bill’s proposed powers are necessary to tracking and preventing crimes by terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals.

We collectively and individually must continue to fight for online security

The current encryption debate involving Apple and the FBI is symbolic of a future in which people like Edward Snowden have envisioned, where governments by law, would not need judicial oversight or probably cause to collect and investigate data on citizens. While Apple have taken a great step into prioritising their user’s online rights and security, we collectively and individually must continue to fight for online security or we risk a world where there is no freedom of expression and thought.

Yes there are enemies out there, both foreign and domestic, but we cannot sacrifice the essence of what makes the democratic system great. If we sacrifice these principles both as a government and as a society, then what is the point of securing the security of the nation? What are we protecting if we continue to prioritise security over liberty? If we continue to accept a world in which governments can, without oversight, collect data without permission and target indiscriminately without cause, we are creating and supporting the world, where the elected and the electorate become the ruling and the ruled.

The internet has allowed people to share information about the world, about themselves and about any idea at any time. We have come to believe we live in a society where rights of free speech and liberty allows us to express and share ideas, but at the same time there is a universal acceptance that our online activities are being watched.

There are multiple scientific research projects which show that if people know they are being watched they act differently, they alter their actions, usually in accordance to what society demands of them and of common thinking. People make jokes about being watched all the time, but this acknowledgement, especially within a younger generation, is a scary development.

While we are social creatures who need human interaction and public identity, equally essential to us as humans, modern day citizens and as users, is privacy. The series of articles following will look at our freedoms and rights in the digital age, and the extent to which our human rights are extended to the online user.

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