digitaLiberties

The Snooper's Charter: Will Britons' privacy be sacrificed for security?

The tools of mass surveillance and the suspension of privacy rights are normally reserved for use by dictatorships. Is Theresa May above the regimes and belief systems she seeks to oppose?

Rafael Laguna
19 September 2016
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Theresa May at Prime Minister's questions. PA / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Britons are just beginning to understand the full consequences of their country's decision to exit the European Union.

Without careful attention and accountability, June’s Brexit vote will lead to the erosion of UK civil liberties and pave the way for Parliament to push through a massive expansion of governmental surveillance powers. As much of Europe was focused on Brexit Theresa May's controversial Investigatory Powers Bill – otherwise known as the 'snooper's charter' – passed a second reading in the House of Lords. Now, May is looking to get the bill into law before the end of the year to replace outgoing EU legislation and with her new-found status it is increasingly likely that she will succeed.

READ MORE: Investigatory powers bill: Our chance to set the rules around surveillance

The core argument that privacy rights are at odds with security concerns is a fallacy

Back in the UK, supporters of the snooper's charter point to recent terrorist activity around the world as evidence for the 'need' of increased public surveillance. But it's important to remember that privacy protections don't exist to shield the machinations of terrorists from our security agencies. Privacy rights protect the entire population.

Yet Europe, it must be said, is not without its privacy problems. This month German spies were found to have created seven illegal databases of citizen data, sharing this data at an astonishing rate of over 14 million items per day.

READ MORE: Damning judgement on the IP Bill

Going forward, Britain has an opportunity to build on the European foundations for privacy legislation in a way that is actually appropriate for the modern digital age. Unfortunately, however, nothing from May's history suggests that she has any intention of doing this during her tenure as prime minister. As it stands, her snooper's charter would open the door to indiscriminate data collection on all people in Britain and would signal the end of their digital privacy.

If the government begins monitoring messaging apps and smartphones, for instance, criminals and terrorists will simply turn to other methods of communication that cannot be intercepted. Increased surveillance powers do not effectively restrict the practices of terrorists.

The snooper's charter would open the door to indiscriminate data collection on all people in Britain and would signal the end of their digital privacy

The core argument that privacy rights are at odds with security concerns is a fallacy. When governments limit people's privacy, they harm the general public, not criminals. Increased surveillance powers simply fail to effectively restrict terrorist actions.

Britons should take a strong stand against this bill. Sadly, however, just 12% of the British public say the bill has been sufficiently explained. That's because it’s far easier to muster support for intrusive surveillance powers when the specifics of technology are ignored.

In short the British government, with Theresa May at its head, is relying on the fear of terrorist attacks and national security to garner support for its security initiatives.

Britons should take a strong stand against this bill

The bill will "sacrifice the civil liberties of Britons everywhere on the altar of national security," as Privacy International Legal Director Carly Nyst has eloquently said. But I would go even further. The tools of mass surveillance and the suspension of privacy rights are normally reserved for use by dictatorships.

If Theresa May carries Britain down this road, it will be setting a poor example to the world and showing that, in this respect, she is not above the regimes and belief systems she seeks to oppose.

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