Debate: Has state surveillance in the UK gone too far?


12190986_954746381251861_1243204920253695392_nYes: James Sewry

Imagine a situation in which a policeman could enter your home without notice, rummaging through all your letters, photos and phone records without justification.  Imagine that his only defence, once you had no doubt complained, was that his activities had been for your own safety and protection.  That’s right: going through your own private material in order to protect you.  Sounds odd, doesn’t it?  This situation might sound bizarre, and yet it happens daily in the virtual world.  The British government, through GCHQ, collects data about millions of people on a daily basis: the content of emails, telephone calls, and internet histories.  Beyond doubt, this proves that state surveillance in the UK has gone too far and must at once be reined in and made subject to democratic oversight.

In the USA, where the level of threat is similar to the UK’s, the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is one in 3.5 million.  To put that into perspective, one has more chance of drowning in their evening bath.  The idea that the government therefore ought to divert considerable resources to mass surveillance which somehow prevents terrorism, and thereby completely erode people’s privacy, is ludicrous.  Put simply, the scale of the government response is disproportionate to the risk of an attack actually happening.  Some might claim that the reason the chances of being individually implicated in a terrorist attack are so small is proof that state surveillance works.  If we stripped the security services of their capabilities, the number of attacks would rise dramatically.  However, no evidence suggests that mass surveillance, as practised in the USA and in the UK helps foil potential acts of terrorism.  Did it, for example, prevent the Boston marathon bombings of 2013?  However, highly targeted surveillance – monitoring the activities of those whom there is reliable evidence to suggest might carry out or aid acts of terrorism – does work.  Collecting data about everyone else only impedes that task.  Yet, by playing upon our fear of terrorism, the government has been able to establish digital capabilities that would never have passed normal democratic procedures.  We are so unnecessarily scared, so suspicious of others and their activities, so distrusting of people’s good nature, that we have played silent witness to an immense growth in government power.

It is sometimes claimed by defenders of current state surveillance practices that so much data is collected that the chances of a particular individual’s being picked out are very slim.  Rather than being an advantage, this points towards a fundamental flaw is mass surveillance, namely that security services are so overwhelmed by data that its task of locating terrorist activity is made considerably harder.  Mass collection does not work.  Not only does your data come to represent the proverbial needle in the haystack, but so does the data of the terrorist whose activities need to be stopped.  Indeed, it is difficult to see how hoarding masses of virtual data about the population, the majority of which is completely innocent, will help prevent and deter terrorists from carrying out their planned attacks.

Finally, state surveillance flies in the face of principles for which the UK is praised and admired.  Rather than assuming that one is innocent until proven guilty, it assumes criminality and suspicious behaviour.  It destroys the basic human right to privacy and, at its worst, constitutes illegal activity on behalf of the government.  As Edward Snowden has explained: “The people looking at this data are looking for criminals. You could be the most innocent person in the world, but if somebody programmed to see patterns of criminality looks at your data, they’re not going to find you – they’re going to find a criminal.”  Current state surveillance has gone far beyond its original goal of keeping the population safe.  It is now used to watch and monitor people’s activities, whether they are innocent or not.  People are right to draw comparisons with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  That’s not the sort of society I want to live in.  I hope you don’t want to either.

No: Rachel Dunne

Fears of a 1984-style Big Brother state have grown in recent years, accompanied by the appearance of NGOs like “Big Brother Watch”, with many pundits relishing the opportunity to scaremonger. This level of paranoia, however, is disproportionate to the true nature of state surveillance today in the United Kingdom. While technological advances have inevitably allowed the government greater access to data about our lives, the manner in which these data points are being collected and utilised is often misconstrued by critics.

Ultimately, the extent of state surveillance we find acceptable depends on the relative weights we assign to both our right to privacy and our right to freedom from harm. These rights are in conflict in this instance as high levels of state surveillance help deter and prevent crimes, particularly terrorist attacks. This deterrence will inevitably require more data to be collected from all of us. Put simply, it seems clear that it is worth sacrificing some of our privacy in order to help stop repeats of appalling attacks like the murder of Lee Rigby, which a report has concluded could have been prevented if a social network had passed on information at its disposal to MI5. This week Andrew Parker, director general of the Security Service, said in a speech that the UK terror threat had reached a level unprecedented in his career. He emphasised the key role communications technology is playing in this in facilitating radicalisation and the organisation of attacks. Consequently he stressed that the availability of data to the Security Services is a necessity, as six attacks have already been prevented this year.

Despite our fear of data about us being collected, the nature of the data collection means that, unless a computer programme flags up a datapoint as suspicious, it is unlikely a human being will ever see the information. In most cases, your data exists only as a tiny part of a conglomerate of information, practically invisible within this mass. On top of this, the type of data being collected is significantly less personal than we are often lead to believe. Unless special permission by a Secretary of State is given, only metadata – data about the “when” and “who” of a communication – can be accessed

Rather than going overboard worrying about state collection of information, we have more to fear when corporations including Facebook and Google collect data and subsequently sell it on to the highest bidder. This type of surveillance results in businesses – whose primary aim is to make us give them our money – gaining vast knowledge about our habits and relationships. This allows them subtly to manipulate their operations, as evidenced by the targeted advertising that follows us around the web. While the democratically elected government carries out surveillance in order to tackle crime and keep us from harm, companies do so in order to try to ifluence our actions for their own benefit. I find the latter to be much scarier.

It is true that legislation needs to keep up with technology in ensuring that data the government obtains is not misused either internally or as a result of hacking; however, there must be a balance. Demanding too much privacy would hamper the ability of the Security Service to tackle both ordinary crime and the increasing UK terror threat, this being to our own detriment in the long-run.

IMAGE/ Ministry of Defence


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