Mass Surveillance and the Crisis of British Politics
by Loz Kaye
The 2015 general election was a bruising campaign with a shocking result. What is particularly alarming, if not surprising, is the first political project rolled out by the Tories- a full on assault on civil liberties and digital rights.
Theresa May wasted no time in announcing the return of the Communications Data Bill, dubbed the Snoopers' Charter, the plans to rubber stamp the blanket scooping up of all our communications. This comes in the wider context of the Tories digital authoritarianism for example new alarmingly diffuse plans against “extremism” which the Home Secretary has been utterly unable to articulate precisely. These apparently include the idea of powers to ban people from broadcasting and compelling them to send every Tweet, Facebook post or other web communication to the police to be vetted. This would be chilling if it weren't so obviously absurd.
These types of political assault have been continuing throughout this century under successive governments in the UK, notably with Intercept Modernisation and plans for the Communications Data Bill during the 2010-15 coalition. The essential problem has been the inability of many MPs, journalists and commentators alike to see the distinction between targeted and blanket surveillance, and how the latter fundamentally re-aligns our relationship with the state in a very dangerous way.
Two main political strategies to sell this to the public have been:
1. The 'upgrade' narrative. This is the disguising this fundamental shift in the nature and intent of intelligence gathering as merely keeping up with advances in technology. In reality, programmes like TEMPORA, XKEYSCORE and OPTIC NERVE do not show any lack of capability.
2. The 'present danger' narrative. No political 'hook' has been missed to try and justify the expansion of mass surveillance , be it ISIS or the cynical exploitation of the death of Lee Rigby. While the report into Rigby's death showed that his attackers were indeed known, no action was taken anyway partly because of the overload of data.
The problem has been these narratives are very difficult to counter politically – a calm discussion of the facts still feels emotionally 'wrong' for many voters.
This is a symptom of a deeper democratic problem. The digital rights movement has had some successes, notably in heading off the Snoopers' Charter twice, first from the Commons then in a disgraceful attempt in Lords to add it in its entirety to another bill. However, thanks to Snowden we know these bills have been attempts to legitimise practices already taking place. In real terms GCHQ has utterly undermined the British democracy it claims to defend.
The election campaign and the result leave real challenges ahead. For all the Liberal Democrats were seen as the main political opposition to the Snoopers' Charter, they were in government during the Snowden scandal and failed to do anything about the revelations. Worse still, if they remain the leading political voice on digital rights they will make opposition to laws like the Snoopers' Charter as toxic as their brand.
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