Is Big Brother watching you?

The David PartyI saw this interesting question a day or so ago:

Are we drifting blindly towards 1984-style surveillance?

If we take CCTV, for example, I don’t think anyone is proposing or trying to put CCTV cameras in private areas (like the cameras in 1984). And given the benefits in terms of security and crime detection, there is a general acceptance that the extent of CCTV coverage in this country is reasonable. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain examples of CCTV which are debatable and, indeed, are debated.

On the subject of communication: If someone writes me a long letter with lots of personal details and even a proposal of some sort of criminal act, no one is going to see it except me, and, in any case, it would be fairly obvious to me if the letter had been opened.

Simlarly, if I talk to someone in a park or my house, the conversation isn’t going to be listened to. If, however, someone calls me on my mobile from their mobile or writes me an email making a proposal of a criminal act then, if it is egregious enough and contains sufficient key words, the chances are that it could be intercepted subject to a warrant being signed by the Home Secretary or the Foreign Secretary (we are told).

Up to about the mid-seventies, if you had phoned someone, the chances are that the operator at the local telephone exchange could have listened to your conversation.

Are we going down the route of electronic communication interception and surveillance “blindly”? Well, yes, until Edward Snowden blew his whistle I think we were indeed. So the debate which is being initiated by the Guardian is to be welcomed and is, indeed, vital. I certainly don’t accept any “if you knew what we knew” rubbish or “if you are innocent you have nothing to fear” rubbish. I am sure many people don’t. But I am also sure that a vast number of non-Guardian reading people don’t give a flying fig about this subject. They trust the government to protect our security and balance that reasonably with our privacy. Or they just don’t care about these matters.

I would also mention that I want to see more information on these “warrants” which are signed by cabinet ministers before officials look at certain emails and other communications. How many of these warrants are being signed on behalf of the security services? For what category of purpose are they being signed in what numbers? Does issuing a warrant for “safeguarding the economic well-being of the UK” include intercepting emails concerning a shipment of apples leaving the country? If not, then where is the line drawn in this category? There is some infomation available on the use of RIPA powers, but “The number of warrants issued to the security services is not made public” – according to Liberty. The total number (including those signed for other agencies) is made public:

The total number of lawful intercept warrants issued in 2012 under Part I Chapter 1 of RIPA was 3372.

-says the 2012 report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner, which is a ripping read. It was re-issued on the 18th July this year after hasty revisions to keep up with events. It has thousands of words which can be summed up in two words: “Trust me”. It includes the enticing tidbit that, in 2012, MI5 and MI6 made seven errors each in obtaining warrants. Fascinating stuff. That’s seven errors each that came to the attention of the commissioner, of course. LOL. Laudably, Mark Pack has been more vigilant on this topic than me.

How does anyone know what is in the emails, and therefore whether their revelation is justified, if they haven’t looked at them (the emails) before a warrant is signed? Or do they have an advanced “sneaky peaky”? We have to trust the commissioner, Sir Anthony May (Bradfield College and Worcester College Oxford). The Office of the Commissioner hasn’t exactly had a good press. Sir Anthony’s recreations are listed as “gardening, music, books, walking and bonfires”. Bonfires? Should we trust an Information Interception Commissioner whose hobby is “bonfires”? I only ask the question. One never knows what old correspondence and documents creep into bonfires sometimes does one? (Note: the last four sentences were an attempted joke).

The detention and debagging of David Miranda, plus the crunching of the Guardian’s hard drive, is profoundly and gravely shocking to me. I am particularly aggrieved that these events cast a shadow over the perception of the Leveson proposals which actually proposed enshrining in law a duty of governments to guarantee the freedom of the press, a measure similar to that in the USA which would have avoided this Miranda/crunched hard drive scenario in the first place, it is plausible to suggest.

Finally, a word about books being used as shorthand for certain phenomena. People often use the phrase “we’re entering a brave new world”. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, for starters, projected a future world where “Natural reproduction has been done away with and children are created, ‘decanted’ and raised in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres” (Wikipedia). When people say “we’re entering a brave new world” they don’t actually mean that we’re entering a world where natural reproduction is stopped in favour of baby farms. Well, I don’t think they mean that, anyway.

Similarly, the words “We’re becoming like 1984” are often bandied around to mean that we’re getting over-surveilled. When people say this, I would guess that they do not mean that we have a state camera in every single room in every single building and that critics of the state are put in a room where they are threatened with their worst nightmare, such as having a rat in a container strapped to their face. (Because, from memory, those are two of the main features of the novel, 1984.)

So I just think that questions like “are we moving towards 1984?” tend to misdirect our debating efforts. Are we becoming like the dystopian world presented in a novel written by a dying man on the remote island of Jura some 64 years ago? No. I realise that this fantastic work of fiction has become very fêted and famous – quite deservedly so. But I think our debating efforts can be a little more accurately targetted by not aiming at questioning whether a quite extraordinary fictional scenario exists in full or part. It is a slightly nebulous discussion to have. It’s like trying to eat a wobbly half-set jelly with a paper fork on a ship during a force ten storm.

It is a more useful exercise to ask something like: Is the balance between personal privacy, liberty and security correct in this country? To that question, without the rather distracting spectre of a fictional world being introduced, I would answer: No, or, at least, “the jury is out”. The balance isn’t right, it seems. It has tipped, it appears, too far towards state surveillance.

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