This time last year, the world was rocked by Edward Snowden’s revelations that several democratic governments had run roughshod over fundamental rights of free expression and privacy with invasive mass surveillance programmes. Since then, the UK Government, Parliament and independent watchdogs have done little to reassure the public that they take our concerns seriously, and recognise the rights of citizens to have truly private conversations, without being monitored by the State unless they have good reason to suspect we are doing something illegal.
The internet and digital technology has revolutionised the way we communicate. Telephone conversations and letters are being replaced by texts and emails. Yet when we use our mobile phone or tablet, we send and receive metadata, which contains ever more personal information about us, and far more detail than a traditional postal message would contain. Metadata can reveal our political opinions, who our friends and colleagues are, our likes and dislikes, and even our health information.
State security agencies aren’t allowed to record all telephone conversations or take copies of all the letters posted in and out of the UK, just in case they might need the information later. But with mass surveillance programmes, it is as if they have opened every piece of post sent or received in the UK, scanned the content, then kept it for a month just in case. This is happening on a daily basis with every email we send, website we visit, social media message we share, or mobile app we use. Current legislation which provides greater protection of the content of communications is based, to a large extent, on a postal and telephone communication system and is no longer sufficient.
The UK legal system places high importance on the principle of innocent until proven guilty, but mass surveillance practices dismiss this fundamental tenet. The government assumes we are all guilty, scans and collects our emails, mobile phone calls, and social media posts for particular content, and then decides whether they need to investigate us further. They are doing it secretly because they know we would object if we found out.
All of us have the right to privacy and free expression, but these rights are violated by arbitrary mass surveillance programmes that assume guilt over innocence. The violation of our civil liberties through programmes such as Optic Nerve, Tempora and Prism, has been met by a woefully inadequate response from the UK Government. In the wake of this inaction, ARTICLE 19 and other human rights and digital activism groups founded the Don’t Spy on Us campaign.
Don’t Spy on Us was founded on a set of key principles we believe would bring UK surveillance programmes in line with international human rights standards and protect our rights to free expression and privacy. These include a call for no surveillance without suspicion; transparency of mass surveillance laws; judicial not political authorisation, with surveillance sanctioned by an independent judge on a case-by-case basis; effective democratic and independent oversight of mass surveillance; the right to challenge surveillance in an open court; and a secure web for all.
In countries with a more recent memory of government using tools of mass state surveillance to limit dissent and target opposition movements, such as Brazil and Germany, the public and parliamentarians have expressed outrage and demanded a roll back of indiscriminate and unfettered state surveillance. Yet in the UK, where we pride ourselves on being an open and democratic nation, the government has been largely dismissive of criticism.
On Saturday, 7 June, hundreds of activists will gather in London for the first Don’t Spy on Us Day of Action. We’ll consider what new legislation should look like and how we can make sure our rights to free expression and privacy are respected. We’ll discuss how to grow a campaign into a movement for change that allows citizens to express dissent without being monitored. And we’ll be hearing from experts in digital tech and security on some of the steps we can take to protect our communications from intrusive surveillance.
It’s time for the UK government to sit up and listen. If the UK wants to be a global beacon of democracy and accountability for the world, mass surveillance has to end.
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