We’ve Been Snooped

Victoria Pickering

We have been duped. We have had a veil pulled over our eyes for many years now, and for many it is still preventing us from seeing and wanting to see the reality of our situation. This article looks at the nature of this veil, and the relationship between our government and our liberty.

In the rapidly developing world of science and technology it would be easy to debate some of the world’s more popular and well known stories such as the impact of the newly elected American President or British Brexit on the future of the technological development and scientific research. It would be easy to talk about the very popular Hollywood topic of Artificial Technology and its impact on humanity. But not many people are looking at one of the greatest and important events in the history of modern technology, revolving around the internet.

The event currently unfolding, which is not receiving enough scrutiny  as it should it be,  is the passing of the Investigatory Power’s Bill, nicknamed the Snooper’s Charter. The Investigatory Power’s Bill is undoubtedly the greatest infringement on individual, online rights and liberties since the creation of the internet, surpassing the American intelligence community’s surveillance state revealed by Edward Snowden.

Even in a year where there has been global social and political upheaval, in which people across the world have engaged with their political environments, our online human rights have been way down on the list of questions and debates.

The foundation and core objection to this bill is not a political bias, as many security fanatics would proclaim, or even a left wing, liberal motive, but a human one.

Despite criticism from multiple parties including senior parliamentary committees and private technology companies, the law has been passed, very much driven by Theresa May who started the process whilst in the post of Home Secretary.

1. The Political Coin

Despite the legislation being public knowledge for many months now, there has not been much scrutiny of its passage to law. The reason why we have not taken notice is at the same time our fault, and some what not.

Political development in recent months in the western world has certainly been the prime media headline and the centre of conversations in offices and homes across the western world. Namely, the British Brexit vote and American Presidential Elections. Whilst these events are important, the failure of the media, not surprising, and of the politicians themselves have led to this bill not receiving the amount of pressure, scrutiny and accountability needed. Especially considering its nature; coming close and/or crossing the moral and legal line of what is right and wrong.

There are two sides to this political coin which has dominated our screens, and rolling news stories. The first is the very real socioeconomic impact of political events. People are concerned about their place in the new social and political landscape, with the NHS, immigration and economic prosperity in the wake of Brexit and American elections becoming important issues on people’s minds. These issues should rightly so be at the forefront of people’s minds.

The flip side of this coin has been the overwhelming, and deeply unsettling “entertainment” factor of politics in the western democratic sphere in the last year. From the presidential antics involving scandals and personality attacks to the Tory and Labour leadership contests, political issues have been sidelined for squabbles and tit for tat insults. The media dined out on this for weeks. Where issues like social care for the elderly, the economic reality of Brexit or the issues of economic prosperity in the United States should have been the deciding factors, it was entertainment variable which proved to be decisive.

However, we have been duped by this political coin, not through the fault of others, but through our own. The modern political system is something which people still have faith in. People still believe that the democratic and modern socioeconomic system will, in the end, come right, and represent the interests of everyone. I’m not sorry to say, it doesn’t and it will not.

In the hugely popular financial crisis film, The Big Short, during the story when some of the bankers realise the fraudulent nature of the system, Ryan Gosling’s character suggest that despite their scepticism, they “still have some faith in the system”.

2. The Ironic Amendment 

This faith in the system is founded upon the very democratic pillars which govern our country.  However, it is obvious that this faith is blind.

During the legislative process of the bill, those opposing it pointed to it being hastily written, and being pushed through Parliament extremely quickly, ensuring that it did not receive full scrutiny. This will lead to a law which is undefined and vague, allowing the government to bend the rules on how they enforce it.

Moreover, in an almost satirical fashion, our representatives in this democratic process, namely our MP’s, supposedly elected to represent our interests, tried their hand at amending the bill.

Of course the only amendment they were concerned with and in fact actually were successful in passing, were to stop these spying powers being enacted on them. The amendment passed made politicians exempted from being spied on. Of course, in an even more hilarious development, our representatives could not even manage to stop all spying on them, but only forced the government to have a warrant for spying on their communications.

I don’t know if they understand how a democracy works, but having representatives of the people, whom are democratically elected and empowered, spied on at all, on any level, is a contentious issue. It is actually wholly undemocratic.

Just to clarify, this article is not leading to a revolutionary proclaimation, but simply an analysis and comment on how we as a global society need to understand the need to take proactive steps in securing our freedoms and liberties and not entrusting others to do so.

The Investigatory Power’s Bill is now the contemporary symbol of this blind faith. Faith in a system which regularly and emphatically disappoints us and misrepresents us, it is the prime example of the ruling thinking what is best for the ruled. We are not the represented or the electorate, but subjects under the rule of rulers.

3. What is the reality of “Duped”?

So we have been duped so we can be snooped. What is the reality behind that veil of secrecy and ignorance?

A. Corrupted Trust

For technologists, admirers of technology and users of technology(hint, it includes pretty much everyone on the planet), the reality of this law is a kick in the teeth of those people.

In the last couple of years, the success of technology and internet companies has been tied to their newly emphasised social consciousness, namely their determined loyalty and commitment to their users and customers. This is a remarkable departure from the energy and pharmaceutical corporations of the past. Even despite the recent “Fake News” criticism facing Facebook and Google, these companies have pledged an allegiance to their users, apparently.

The bastion of this change has been Apple.  Apple has been the most public advocate for digital rights in the last year. However under this law, the British government will legally force internet companies to keep records and histories of their users for up to a year, whilst also allowing the government to force those companies to hack or break into things they have sold so the government can look into them (spy on them).

So not only the trust we have placed in these companies but our personal details and identities, are now being legally managed and counteracted by “our” government.

B. Article 17 – The Need for Extension and Lack Thereof

The debate over the extent to which digital rights and human rights are akin to one another and has been argued for many years now. (Some what futile, because, hint again, considering the internet is the main communications platform in the world, it must be considered part of one’s personal information.) Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects everyone for arbitrary or unlawful interference with their “privacy, family, home or correspondence”. This was innacted in 1976, and since then, internet related technologies have become the foundation of societal functioning.

The American Civil Liberties Union suggested in a report that considering these technological developments and the clear “substantial and rapid erosion of privacy rights”, specifically in personal information, there is an “urgent need” to expand Article 17’s scope of its privacy protections.

It has been suggested over and over, yet many people are not hearing: our online rights are part and parcel of our human rights. They should be protected and afforded to everyone, and should not be sacrificed for the security of a nation. We as a society choose, everyday, that liberty of the individual is more important that the security of the individual. Which is why we don’t have a security camera in every room of every house in every country.

C. Government of the people, by the people, for the people?

The infamous words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address are enshrined, metaphorically, in the democratic government system around the world.

There have been and currently are various issues through which one could argue the democratic system is failing the people. One of them being the legitimacy of the two of the most powerful western leaders. For Theresa May, her ascension to the parliamentary throne, can be argued as illegitimate. For Donald Trump, his huge popular vote deficit, now climbing to 2 million, has been quoted as a basis for a recounting of the vote.

We have been led to believe that our government, throughout global democratic systems and through law, represents our interests. However the passing of the Investigatory Power’s Bill has shown multiple points in which the government is consciously failing to represent us. Thus reverting to the model of the ruling and the ruled.

The first being the reality of government surveillance. Not only does the law compel companies to keep records of users, but now it is known the numerous number of governmental organisations and agencies which will have access to your records.

It is deeply disturbing.

They include agencies which are somewhat obvious like police forces including the Metropolitan Police and intelligence agencies like GCHQ. (Which are not right in and of themselves). The list of access granted organisations include the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions, Health and Safety Executive and the Food Standards Agency.

There are no words to describe how haunting this is…but let’s try.

The common and very well known justification for such surveillance measures has been and will always be; to secure the safety and security of everyone in the country, and to combat the terrorist forces looking to destroy our way of life…

In what way does the powers of access granted to the FSA or DWP, aid the efforts of national security?

People often joke about the failures of the government. We often see the mistakes of the political establishment as part and parcel of government. However if we look back at the history of the European continent, it is clear that such views empower governments to further secure their power, and decrease any need for accountability to the public.

People will shy away or shout in horror at the mention of Stalinism or National Socialism and its comparison with the current governing state. The terrifying point about this bill is the totalitarian nature of it. With its granted powers, these agencies will have the power to look into the lives of everyone, without hesitation, without accountability and without care. This is total control.

Control comes from knowledge, specifically knowledge about others, when those others are unaware of such power. When someone knows something about you but you know nothing about them, that is the basis for totalitarian control and authoritarian power.

We will not know the extent to which these agencies use this power, but the fact they have this hugely invasive and anti-humanitarian surveillance infrastructure at their fingertips is truthfully, sad.

4. Why should you care?

Whilst reading this article, the world, unsurprisingly, goes on. People live their lives, use the internet, communicate with their loved ones and heckle their hated ones.

Despite this law being passed and even with the shifting political landscape, people are busy, they have other priorities. The narrative of the digital evolution and the accompanying surveillance state is too much to consider, when people need to work, need to pay their bills, live their lives and look after their families.

Why should you even care? Why should people even both writing articles about this?

Well, firstly considering the 50,000 odd people who have signed a parliamentary petition to repeal the law, it is somewhat a important public topic which people feel strongly about.

More importantly, the Investigatory Power’s Bill is something everyone should care about because of how detrimental and dangerous it is to your life and of those around you. Danger to human rights is not always associated with protection against physical repression, but in the modern age, digital rights.

This issue is not a political one. It is not a matter of political allegiance.  It is not an issue confined to national borders. It does not seclude itself to different citizens, races, genders or cultures.

This is issue is a human one.

Throughout our human history, even back to our simplest days in caves, we have fought on a individual level against tyranny, against those who seek to control us.

Instead we have found that on a biological and modern social level that communities, and now in the modern age, large international online communities, function better, and are more productive if liberty is prioritised over tyranny.

We have been duped for too long.  We have been told lies about the extent to which our government has acted in our interests. But it has to be understood, it is human nature as well as the nature of those who hold and wield power, that they seek to safeguard their position of power.

The revelations 3 years ago about the extent of the surveillance state was a watershed moment in how the world looks at the internet.We have been warned by whistleblowers and journalists alike that this surveillance apparatus is the most dangerous tool in the world. It is the tool of oppression. It has happened before, and it is happening now.

The only difference is, now, it is legal, and people know its happening.

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