Civil liberties are under serious threat in the West. In the fight against terrorism abroad, governments are stripping away our liberties at home in order to keep us safe. In the pursuit of terror the state has amassed considerable power and can peer into almost every facet of our daily lives. Every phone call we make, every text that we send and every site that we browse is potentially stored in databases of which the size is inconceivable. Sean Mowbray argues that the key fight to maintain our rights is being fought on the internet.
We live in an era where online communications are an essential part of our daily lives. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter on average consume at least one hour of our day. It is essential to safeguard fundamental rights while there is still the possibility of doing so. We are at a tipping point as politicians state unequivocally that our security is the paramount priority and that it often trumps even basic human rights.
In response to the Charlie Hebdo attack the UK the government used the threat of a similar incidence to push forward with its surveillance agenda. Current Prime Minister David Cameron said, ‘are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read? My answer to that question is: ‘No we must not’’. This position succinctly summarises the debate, the need to balance the fear of terror with our own basic democratic and human rights.
This ‘fear’ is a recurring symptom amongst Western governments and is driven by the same blatant hypocrisy that is used to defend atrocious foreign policy decisions. Constructing security features at home that directly erode the foundations of our democracy is portrayed as an attempt to increase our security. And that these structures are eroding our rights is undisputable. In a 2014 report Human Rights Watch reported that journalists in the US are increasingly feeling pressured by the possibility of potential surveillance and that many ‘are being forced to adopt the tactics of drug dealers and criminals just to do their job’.
Whether by curbing the investigative powers of journalists or frightening sources from talking to the media, the potential for infringing upon the freedom of the press is there and to some extent it is already weakening one of the essential pillars of Western democracy.
The position of fear held by politicians such as Cameron is entirely understandable in the currently dangerous climate as international terrorism is a real and present danger. However, the expansion of such powers relies significantly upon a strong degree of trust existing between the state and the citizen which is far from present. There is little reason to believe in the benevolent intentions of the surveillance services as abuses have been rife.
The USA and UK have been exposed as running elaborate and prolonged observation and data gathering operations on both their own citizens and those outside their national boundaries. In the USA the NSA routinely broke the law in its surveillance of Americans. In the UK, GCHQ was found to have broken the law during its ‘Prism’ surveillance programme which ran for seven years between 2007 and 2014.
Now the British intelligence service has been absolved of the crime as the public is sufficiently aware of its actions. Meanwhile, the surveillance continues. We are also seeing a form of observational creep as surveillance laws have been adjusted to encapsulate minor offences and have even been used by the BBC to catch out those not paying the license fee.
Concern has been raised around the extent of the surveillance programmes by UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay who warned in 2014 that governmental surveillance programmes have been ‘emerging as a dangerous habit rather than exceptional measures.’
To suggest that these are only temporary powers is wrong. Power tends in one direction and once held by intelligence services they will only to seek to increase and expand on them. It began with tapping of phones and the recording of messages and now it has spread to the reading of messages, emails and soon perhaps even encrypted messaging.
Online privacy should be as much a basic right as privacy in the ‘real’ world because ever more frequently the two are synonymous. Too often the debate comes down to a shrug and an ‘I don’t do anything wrong so why should I be worried’ response. Potentially every online action will be monitored and stored for later use, it is similar to having someone standing over your shoulder while browsing the web or snapchatting or instagramming. When the physical is removed, people often lose sense of the uncomfortable.
We can see that the Big Brother state has arrived in the West. It has happened under our watch. In the coming weeks the focus of our attention will be upon other issues such as immigration or the economy. But a greater threat is faced by all of us and that is the threat of unaccountable state power being amassed which allows the government to snoop into our everyday lives. It is not a major talking point in this election and is unlikely to become so. But without the implementation and enforcement of serious regulation abuse of current powers will only continue to occur and our basic right to privacy will continue to be blatantly disregarded. At this moment in time nobody is watching the watchers and until that changes Big Brother will remain firmly in the West, watching us all.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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