The passing of the Snoopers Charter this month was a bad day for democracy, not just in the UK, but across the world, as governments everywhere watch and take note.
By vastly expanding State surveillance powers in a country that has historically been a beacon of democracy and individual liberty, the British government is setting a terrible precedent that will inevitably be followed by strongmen, juntas, and dictators everywhere.
If we doubt that the international community has been eagerly awaiting for the UK to set a terrible surveillance precedent, then consider this: the UK government has freely admitted that GCHQ spies on communications from all over the globe, and the Investigatory Powers Bill legally enshrines its right to do so.
Where then are the howls of outrage we might expect from other governments whose citizens have been shamelessly spied upon? The answer is nowhere, because leaders everywhere are eagerly watching to see if the UK government can pull off this shameless coup against its own citizens, hoping to follow its example.
The UK government, it seems, does not care about the terrible effect this will have on human rights across the globe, but the Bill will in many ways undermine its own aims. In passing such Orwellian legislation, the UK sacrifices any moral high ground it may still have, thereby limiting its ability to influence world affairs. This legislation can therefore be seen as classic case of the government shooting itself in the foot (to the cost of all).
In passing the Investigatory Powers Bill, the UK government is asking the British public to trust it to keep them safe. The question, however, is safe from what? The chances of a UK citizen being involved in a terrorist incident are minuscule, while the new law is a fundamental attack on the basic liberties of all citizens. It will touch the lives of everyone, and because of it, we will all be less free. Any claim that the Investigatory Powers Bill represents a sensible balance between privacy and safety is pure sophistry. Presenting the issue in such binary terms deliberately ignores the complex practical and philosophical complexities of subject, dumbing it down to a false dichotomy in which a scared public, distracted by populist rabble-rousing that conflates the current humanitarian refugee crisis with terrorism, will sign-up up to anything in exchange for the illusion of safety.
And illusion it is. The security services already suffer a major “finding the needle-in-the-haystack” problem when it comes to sifting through and making sense of the petabytes of data it already collects as a matter of routine. In fact, far from ‘going dark’, security services now have access to oceans of surveillance data, as the sheer volume of digital communications increases almost exponentially each year.
Collecting even more data will not make us safer (neither of the Paris attacks last year would have been prevented by measures introduced in the IPB), but it will create what is often referred to as a “chilling effect”, where critics of the government, fully aware that everything they do is being watched in distressing detail, choose to self-censor. Perhaps the biggest irony is that it is not terrorists or perverts that are attacking the British way of life, our values, and our hard-won freedoms, but our own government. And it does this under the pretence of defending precisely those freedoms it is taking away with this legislation.
If we are to assume that terrorists’ motives are to damage our society, to shake our faith in liberal multicultural values, our open-minded tolerance, and our deep-seated cultural belief in the primacy of the individual against overbearing State power or dogmatic belief, then the passing of the Snoopers Charter is the clearest possible sign that the terrorists have already won.
Given the scale of this assault on the basic liberties of each and every British citizen, very few members of the public seem even aware of the coup that has just been pulled off against them. This is not helped by the almost deafening silence from the mainstream press, which has resolutely refused to give the subject the publicity it deserves.
Even the Guardian newspaper, known in the past for its staunch defense of liberal values, has remained remarkably subdued in its reporting of this issue. Indeed, the main opposition parties, despite widespread unease over the disproportionate sweep of powers and almost complete lack of meaningful oversight enshrined in the new Bill (even if not opposing the fundamental premise behind it’s necessity), rather perplexingly choose to abstain from voting against it.
Along with measures such as attacking opposition parties’ funding, redrawing electoral boundaries, and limiting union powers, the Investigatory Powers Bill makes it clear that the Conservative Party is making a power grab intended to ensure that it remains permanently in government.
All that remains is to become involved a state of perpetual war against an existential enemy that we cannot hope to defeat… (oh, wait…!)
Douglas Crawford, cyber security analyst, BestVPN
Image credit: Amir Kaljikovic/Shutterstock