We need a better debate on the “Drip, Drip, Drip” of the surveillance state

Ross Bellaby  from the University of Sheffield analyses the rise of the British ‘surveillance state’ and the recent Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) law. He argues we need a more sustained debate around the potential, limits and expectations we have for new forms of social media and their implications for privacy.

‘We’re gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen’ – Nick Fury.

‘People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people’ – V.

With a culture obsessed with superheroes and villains we are presented with a clear understanding of who the good guys and bad guys are. The good guys are always stalwart and true (and by virtue of being the good guys can do no wrong); while the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats (and are stuck with only villainous intent). Importantly, in this simple, black and white view of the world the state claims to be the lead protector. The people are asked to trust the system and not to worry about that which they do not know.

Indeed, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) law, backed by the three major political parties in a rare act of agreement, asks the people to grant emergency powers to the intelligence agencies – promising us that it is done in our best interest; that if we knew what they knew we would agree. This has been done in direct conflict to the European Court of Justice’s ruling that telephone and Internet service providers no longer had to adhere to the 2006 Data Retention Directive.

The so-called emergency legislation, rushed through in three days, outlines the obligations of these providers to collect and retain all communication data created by their customers within the last twelve months. However, what does DRIP give us and, more importantly, what does it take away?

A necessary rights restriction?

Those in the ‘for’ camp, such as Home Secretary Theresa May, claim that it simply ‘preserves the status quo’, that it ‘does not extend or create any new powers, rights to access or obligations on communications companies that go beyond those that already exist’. Moreover, it also offers the opportunity for future, more rigorous, oversight opportunities.

Firstly, it has a built-in ‘sunset clause’ so that come the end of 2016 the provisions must be readdressed to determine whether the powers it gives are still necessary. It also promises between now and 2016 to review the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (or RIPA), the mainstay of the intelligence community’s bag of data collection powers.

DRIP also limits the type of organisations that can have access to our private data. Importantly, especially for its Liberal Democrat backers, it establishes a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that will advise on counterterrorism policies in order to create a more balanced set of intelligence collection powers.

Finally, it will publish a transparency report each year that will list the number and types of requests made under the law. Each of these additions offers an opportunity to make the surveillance state better. To update the powers currently used (or as Snowden showed, abused) by the intelligence community.

Do we know the limits?

However, the problem with this (other than the rather rushed nature of the process itself, or that fact that it flies in direct contradiction to the European Court’s attempts to curb state powers) is that the people themselves are unsure as to what sort of limits they want.

The Snowden revelations regarding the unprecedented size and scale of the information being collected by the intelligence community received considerable bipartisan backlash from the American Congress as many called for clearer rules regarding what is and is not acceptable access to our online data.

Similarly, NGOs such as Big Brother Watch, Liberty, Privacy International and Open Rights Group have publically denounced the move, calling it a continuing and unlawful breach of human rights. Despite this, however, social media forums such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter represent an increasing trend towards self-surveillance. Individuals are increasingly pooling their own personal data and publically disseminating on forums with open access, often with the intent of achieving as many people to follow them as possible.

This act of self-surveillance goes even further when people think they have something to gain. Companies that offer membership cards collect, collate and then draw predictive profiles from information on our shopping habits, insurance and banking details, petrol usage and even online activities. How this information is used is never really considered by the average shopper as they willingly offer up information in return for the more points, bringing to mind the adage that If something is free then you are not the customer, you are the product.

Towards ‘self-surveillance’

The interesting thing about all of this is that people are not only seemingly unaffected by the increase in surveillance but are willingly engaging in it. With technological advancements such as Google Glass representing the next phase of self-surveillance, we are faced with some important questions that need to be asked. We need to be clear about what sort of information we want the state to access.

While social media represents an increasingly public form of expression, does this necessarily mean that the state should also be able to ‘follow’ us? And when the state seeks to filter online content, for example the proposed limits on porn, do we want governments determining what morally acceptable behaviour and the good citizen look like?

Furthermore, what role should whistle-blowers have in society? Edward Snowden has been hailed a champion of transparency by some and a danger to nation security to other. Do we want whistle-blowers to feel protected enough to be able to come forward when they see something that they consider questionable, or should these individuals recognise the danger they are putting security operations at?

Intelligence agencies are never going to be completely transparent. Nor should they be, if we want them to be effective. But if they wish to continue then they need to regain our trust, and the first step towards this is a robust conversation about what we expect and how we are going to move forward in order to achieve this.

Note: this post originally appeared on the Crick Institute blog. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

RBRoss Bellaby is lecturer at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics. His main areas of research involve the ethics of intelligence. His research therefore broadly includes looking at historical and contemporary use of intelligence along with the rise of the surveillance state as well as ethical theory, ethics in war and violence and the development of a cosmopolitan ethic and its limits.


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