openDemocracyUK

What have I got to fear, if you've got something to hide?

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The recent surveillance leaks in Britain show a regime that is undemocratic, politically unethical, unconstitutional and probably illegal. What have they got to hide, and how can the public fight back?

JD Taylor
25 June 2013
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Image: Jared Rodriguez, Truthout

As Joseph Heller once wrote, 'just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you'.

These words are uncomfortably fitting following the latest leak of Edward Snowden last Friday. Memos from the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, reveal that it has been given unparalleled powers among any Western (if not global) state to access and record almost all of our emails, web searches, and phone conversations. For independent citizens this may feel indeed 'catastrophic', but it marks only the latest unfolding of an extreme and out-of-control surveillance culture which suggests that the British government's greatest enemy is its own people.

Combined with perhaps the largest CCTV surveillance infrastructure in the world, and the routine use of drones both at home and overseas, this is worrying enough. Add some of the loosest state regulation of these intelligence workers (with further plans to introduce a 'Snooper's Charter'). Finally, stir in a decades-long culture of undercover police spies stealing the identities of dead children and infiltrating peaceful protest groups, as well as selling private information to newspapers and who knows what else. Sinister, no?

In 2006 the Information Commissioner feared that Britain could 'sleep-walk into a surveillance society'. His fears seemingly realised, our surveillance state has moved beyond what Orwell could have imagined. Confronted with this vast and unaccountable 'secret state' as Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, is calling it, it wouldn't be out of the question to feel intimidated. That's precisely the purpose. Fear is the greatest divider and conqueror of any people.

The common defence of this kind of state violence against civil rights is that 'if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear'. This tired argument will no doubt be wheeled out again by the government's defenders. But what if this phrase is twisted back against these snoopers: I've got nothing to hide, so what have you got to fear? What have I got to fear, if you've got something to hide?

Without Snowden's heroic whistle-blowing, the public would have no idea of the US and UK's mass surveillance of global internet and phone communications. Beyond a few conspiracy theorists, to claim even one month ago the extent of this surveillance would have been unthinkable. As with Hackgate, many of us are chilled by what other weapons our supposedly democratic states are using to attack their own citizens. And many of us will be furiously wondering how our elected officials came to allow this to pass, and why our security services demand even greater powers.

So how did the mass application of such a logic pass through parliamentary debate or national referendum? Well, it didn't. The powers the GCHQ has to carry out its 'Mastering the Internet' surveillance programme are enabled only through wide loopholes in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) pushed under Blair's New Labour government, which enable the secret state to intercept and store vast swathes of data via fibre-optic cables for up to thirty days. Aided by a 'light oversight regime' as one intelligence chief put it, it is simply undemocratic.

Further, it's open to abuse. Current and former US security officials have access to this British data and can do what they like with the information, such as leaking it to the Guardian, or sell it for private gain, as phone companies are already doing. If this already compromises our individual rights, there's little consolation in the fact that British officials can access without warrant the recorded data of any non-British citizen. This has already been deployed to diplomatically dirty effect in the total monitoring of foreign leaders' email and phone data, as the British did at the 2009 G20 summit in London.

It's politically unethical, not just in terms of international relations. Mass surveillance of all kinds instils an internal fear, not trust: this has been its purpose since its origins in Bentham's 'panopticon', the prison tower which could potentially see all inmates at the same time. Of course, in the panopticon the prisoner cannot be sure that the guard is looking into his/her cell from the tower, but the psychological value is far greater if he/she believes that they could be watched at any time. Not only is mass surveillance unethical to record all data indiscriminately, even when there's no suspicion of crime, it embeds a collective mindset of fear and resignation before a distant, all-powerful and insidious authority. This kind of rule is more appropriately called tyranny, not democracy. It's also unconstitutional and possibly illegal. It jeopardises the 'ancient and indubitable rights and liberties of the people of this kingdom' (not least the freedom of speech to parliamentarians) of the 1689 English Bill of Rights, and compromises the individual's right to Due Process of the Magna Carta, which sees its 800th anniversary in 2015.

Lastly, it's corrupt, with the politicians supporting it, like Malcolm Rifkind, paid by private companies who might benefit from such policies. Compared to the Expenses scandal, or the majority of Lords who voted to open NHS healthcare services to private competition, this won't be a surprise. Bung is the order of the day.

So if it's undemocratic, politically unethical, unconstitutional, perhaps even illegal, open to abuse and promoted by corrupt politicians, what strategies can people use to challenge it? What's below are just suggestions, and if one will work or not, or could be added to the list, leave a comment below.

-- Set up a Riseup email account instead of Outlook or Gmail (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others have all shared user data with the NSA)

-- Use Tor Browser instead of Internet Explorer or Chrome

-- Cut down any reliance on online groups or social media to discuss ideas and strategy... and remain focused on the types of disruption temporarily succeeding in Brazil, Turkey, Sweden, Egypt, and Greece – real-life physical organisation, such as People's Assemblies...

-- ...but deploy social media effectively for street updates from protests and news sharing

-- Write to your local MP and the Prime Minister to express your disgust and opposition – don't let our politicians get away with this wholesale intrusion

-- Find ways to target GCHQ and the dirty collusion of politicians, private business and the secret security state, be it in demonstrations in London, Bude, Menwith or elsewhere

When every one is violated by state surveillance, it is no longer a few conscientious and idealistic 'activists' who should fight back, but every one of us.

Expose the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics

US Christian ‘fundamentalists’, some linked to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, have poured at least $50m of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the past decade.

That's just the tip of the iceberg: we've got many more leads to chase down find out more and support our work here. 

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.

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