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A debate about surveillance

A debate about surveillance 

Back in 2015, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, called for a ‘mature debate’ on surveillance – in advance of the Investigatory Powers Bill, the surveillance law which has now almost finished making its way through parliament, and will almost certainly become law in a few months time. Though there has been, at least in some ways, a better debate over this bill than over previous attempts to update the UK’s surveillance law, it still seems as though the debate in both politics and the media remains distinctly superficial and indeed often deeply misleading.

It is in this context that I have a new academic paper out: “Data gathering, surveillance and human rights: recasting the debate”, in a new journal, the Journal of Cyber Policy. It is an academic piece, and access, sadly, is relatively restricted, so I wanted to say a little about the piece here, in a blog which is freely accessible to all – at least in places where censorship of the internet has not yet taken full hold.

The essence of the argument in the paper is relatively straightforward. The debate over surveillance is simplified and miscast in a number of ways, and those ways in general tend to make surveillance seem more positive and effective that it is, and with less broad and significant an impact on ordinary people than it might have. The rights that it impinges are underplayed, and the side-effects of the surveillance are barely mentioned, making surveillance seem much more attractive than should be – and hence decisions are made that might not have been made if the debate had been better informed. If the debate is improved, then the decisions will be improved – and we might have both better law and better surveillance practices.

Perhaps the most important way in which the debate needs to be improved is to understand that surveillance does not just impact upon what is portrayed as a kind of selfish, individual privacy – privacy that it is implied does not matter for those who ‘have nothing to hide’ – but upon a wide range of what are generally described as ‘civil liberties’. It has a big impact on freedom of speech – an impact that been empirically evidenced in the last year – and upon freedom of association and assembly, both online and in the ‘real’ world.  One of the main reasons for this – a reason largely missed by those who advocate for more surveillance – is that we use the internet for so many more things than we ever used telephones and letters, or even email. We work, play, romance and research our health. We organise our social lives, find entertainment, shop, discuss politics, do our finances and much, much more. There is pretty much no element of our lives that does not have a very significant online element – and that means that surveillance touches all aspects of our lives, and any chilling effect doesn’t just chill speech or invade selfish privacy, but almost everything.

This, and much more, is discussed in my paper – which I hope will contribute to the debate, and indeed stimulate debate. Some of it is contentious – the role of commercial surveillance the interaction between it and state surveillance – but that too is intentional. Contentious issues need to be discussed.

There is one particular point that often gets missed – the question of when surveillance occurs. Is it when data is gathered, when it is algorithmically analysed, or when human eyes finally look at it. In the end, this may be a semantic point – what technically counts as ‘surveillance’ is less important than what actually has an impact on people, which begins at the data gathering stage. In my conclusion, I bring out that point by quoting our new Prime Minister, from her time as Home Secretary and chief instigator of our current manifestation of surveillance law. This is how I put it in the paper:

“Statements such as Theresa May’s that ‘the UK does not engage in mass surveillance’ though semantically arguable, are in effect deeply unhelpful. A more accurate statement would be that:

‘the UK engages in bulk data gathering that interferes not only with privacy but with freedom of expression, association and assembly, the right to a free trial and the prohibition of discrimination, and which puts people at a wide variety of unacknowledged and unquantified risks.’”

It is only when we can have clearer debate, acknowledging the real risks, that we can come to appropriate conclusions. We are probably too late for that to happen in relation to the Investigatory Powers Bill, but given that the bill includes measures such as the contentious Internet Connection Records that seem likely to fail, in expensive and probably farcical ways, the debate will be returned to again and again. Next time, perhaps it might be a better debate.


Dr Paul Bernal

Lecturer, School of Law

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