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‘Every call you dial’: Limiting the reach of mass surveillance

A new film, CITIZENFOUR, examines the extraordinary reach of today's surveillance culture and calls for a proper system of proportion and accountability.

Thomas Hughes
22 October 2014

In June last year, the world woke up to a story that has changed our understanding of the delicate balance between state surveillance, privacy and free expression for a generation. Most of us had no idea that governments that preached democracy and liberty on the international stage were undertaking covert mass surveillance of every email and telephone call anyone makes to or within their borders.

It’s a chilling thought which is highlighted in Laura Poitras’ film Citizen Four: “every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not”. The film, released in the UK last week, gives a new insight into the motivations of a government contractor who felt he could no longer keep silent in the face of such intrusive and excessive state surveillance. We’re still largely in the dark about the finer details of the scale, reach, and purpose of state surveillance, but thanks to Edward Snowden, we know just enough to understand that things have to change.

In the UK, the film comes as a timely reminder that lack of accountability for mass surveillance is one of the defining civil liberties and human rights issues of a generation. We now know that information about whom we contact, the websites we visit, restaurants we eat in and books we read are kept by state security forces for a month so they can sift through them looking for anything they might consider unusual. It’s not 1984, but it’s an insidious version of arbitrary and constant surveillance that doesn’t fit with international standards.

In light of the urgent need for reform in the UK, Don’t Spy On Us have released detailed policy demands based on six central principles that, if legislated, would bring the UK’s surveillance practices into line with international standards of free expression, privacy and accountability. Don’t Spy On Us is not opposed to all surveillance, but as a broad coalition of digital, human rights and privacy organisations, we demand that governments adhere to basic standards in order to ensure that surveillance does not violate internationally agreed human rights.

Recent stories of police using surveillance legislation to gain access to journalists’ phone records without any judicial oversight expose serious flaws in the UK’s surveillance regime. Reports that international human rights organisations have been particularly targeted, presumably because they challenge government positions on certain issues, lead us to question the fundamental principles of democracy and have a chilling effect of free expression. The UK government and other governments around the world can no longer ignore the incompatibility of their surveillance regimes with the values they purport to hold dear.

Mass surveillance is a violation of fundamental human rights. This isn’t just an opinion. It is stated as such in reports by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Terrorism. It has been established through judgements by the European Court of Justice and the constitutional courts from across Europe. Any surveillance should be targeted and subject to prior judicial authorisation in order to safeguard against arbitrary and improper use. A judge is best placed to make such a decision, balancing the rights of individuals and national security needs.

Furthermore, in an era where so much day to day communications happens online, the distinction between communications data (or meta-data) and the content of the communication is null and void. Communications data already includes huge amounts of personal information regarding the where, when, what, and with whom, of our communication. Private information such as our health concerns, job searches, and legal advice are in the hands of security agencies without any accountability or route for redress for a victim of such surveillance.

Concern about the extreme lack of accountability and transparency of surveillance practices in the UK is dismissed by the government as necessary for the success of security operations, purportedly to ‘keep Britain safe’. But this point is flawed. Because the UK has such a secretive regime (much more so than its counterpart in the USA), evidence collected through mass surveillance is not admissible in court, leaving the UK in limbo unable to prosecute those where there is evidence of illegality. If there were greater transparency and less fear on the part of government and security agencies of being held accountable for their actions, then we might be able to see more successful prosecutions of those who genuinely threaten the safety of people in Britain.

Don’t Spy On Us wants to see surveillance practices that are fit for purpose, which means we need proper judicial and parliamentary oversight. We want communications protected when there is no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing and to see targeted and intelligent surveillance rather than casting the net so wide that everyone is included. We want surveillance practices in the UK to reflect the standards which the UK demands of other governments and to respect human rights and civil liberties. If the UK public cannot be guaranteed these rights by the government, the fundamental question we have to ask ourselves is where is the ‘democracy’ that government and security services claim to be so intent on protecting.

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