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Photo courtesy of Isabell Wutz

Over sixty years ago, George Orwell wrote his novel “1984” depicting a future that seemed impossible and far-fetched for most of the people at that time. But times have changed, and what seemed to be unrealistic back then are well-known traits of our present. “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”, the infamous slogan from Orwell’s book, has frightfully become reality. 

The UK’s new law “Investigatory Powers Bill” (IP-Bill), passed by the government in November, is unprecedented in Europe. Dubbed the Snooper’s Charter, the bill beats the band when it comes to governmental interventions in civil rights. But the passing of the law, legalizing extreme citizen surveillance by the government, went by with little opposition. Have we forgotten about our right to privacy, or are we so eager to create a safe society, no matter the sacrifices?

What's in the snooper's Charter? - and who's next?

The bill allows governmental intelligence agencies like GCHQ, MI6 and MI5, as well as partly also the police, to massively hack citizens, look at communication and 12-month old browser histories. Those activities are not limited to suspects but any person can be scrutinized without a trait of any wrongdoings. Furthermore, internet server providers can be asked to store metadata on their clients and potentially hand it over to the authorities. All this was made possible for the purpose of safe-keeping citizens and their families as well as to combat terrorism. However, the extend of the bill was harshly criticized by many privacy groups and individuals. It was further deemed unlawful by the European Court of Justice but we cannot be sure if this will have any impact given that the UK might not be under the ECJ jurisdiction in the near future. 

Edward Snowden was one of those who condemned the new law and tweeted “The UK just legalized the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes farther than many autocracies.” Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance in the US and Europe in 2013 caused outrage and condemnation. Now, many of those governmental interventions would be legal under the new law. And this law does not apply to British citizens only, but also to many others in countries with which the UK shares agreements. Among them are their major partners of the Five Eyes which include Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US, with which the government shares intelligence data – and Germany is eager to join.   

What will become of our right to privacy? Is it necessary to surrender our private data for security?

Indeed, Germany is already discussing an expansion of surveillance. The country has recently faced a crime committed by adolescents who tried to set a homeless person on fire while he was asleep. The perpetrators were searched through the release of video footage of the crime scene and were soon convicted. Now, authorities want to increase CCTV surveillance, and a poll revealed that a majority of 60% of the population approve an expansion of video surveillance in public spaces. With expansions in CCTV surveillance, already widely in place in the UK and now demanded by many in Germany, and the legalizing of hacking of communication, what will become of our right to privacy? Is it necessary to surrender our private data for security?

IS STATE SURVEILLANCE ENDANGERING OUR DEMOCRACY? 

One of the most frequently used arguments accompanying the discussion is to question why someone should care about increased surveillance and data collection if he or she has nothing to hide. However, this approach is obsolete, notably because who can guarantee that no one will hack into the collected data and use it? Once all that data has been collected, many want to possess it and not for benign reasons. It has been argued that increased surveillance is only in place to counteract crime and terrorism, but no one knows exactly what is being collected and who is being surveilled, and overall what will be done with that information. And even if the current government does use the data on a moral basis, governments can and will change, and no one can predict how they will use the collected data and surveillance methods. 

Negative consequences for democracy can already be witnessed today. Just recently, La Presse journalist Patrick Lagace was monitored by the Canadian police to gain access to his sources, a procedure condemned by many free speech advocates. Those proponents criticized the spying on a media employee as “unacceptable” and emphasized the importance of freedom of press in a democracy. Without a free and independent media channel, or so-called Fourth Estate, the government cannot be hold accountable, and democracy’s necessary condition of checks and balances, which avoids a monopoly and misuse of power, is no longer guaranteed. With no protection for journalists’ sources, not only will this discourage whistleblowing but it might also have a negative impact on journalism and the media itself, and all in all democracy. If journalists cannot work independently and in secret, the checking of the government gets lost and we head into the direction of censorship and media output based on governmental ideology. Hence, the UK’s bill and other acts of surveillance that have such disastrous consequences for checks and balances clearly deserve to be called totalitarian and dictatorial.

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Photo: Frerk Meyer (Flickr)  License: CC BY-SA 2.0

"1984 is here" - Protest in Berlin, in September 2013.

However, with the prevailing fear of terrorism and crime, increased surveillance for security reasons seems to counterbalance the loss of some democratic rights in the eyes of the authorities – and increasingly of the citizens as well. But instead of quickly wiping away our rights in answer to this fears, we should hold on to them and value their crucial importance for the future.

The UK’s bill, which establishes extreme state surveillance in the statute books, is one of the first steps into the dystopian reality Orwell describes in his novel. It is not only endangering Europe’s democracies but the lack of responses and debates is extremely dangerous and shows that we are already far deeper down the road than some might expect. Therefore, it is crucial to talk about these issues and make sure that further laws like the UK’s are not allowed to pass without a strong public debate. Instead of hastily expanding mass surveillance in the light of uncertainty and fear, we should urge for a better data analysis. Tones of collected data cannot be effective if the analysis is not efficient and right. However, if other countries follow the example of the UK, one thing is for sure - privacy will be dead once and for all! Who would have thought that Orwell’s science fiction from 1949 would become reality? The only thing that seems left is to quote another futuristic piece, the TV series Black Mirror: “I did not expect myself living in the future, but here I fucking well am.”

IsiABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isabell Wutz is originally from a small town in south-east Germany but relocated to the Netherlands for her masters programme in Art, Media and Society. If she could she would travel through the world to refute stereotypes. 

Teaser photo:Chris-Håvard Berge (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

NEXT ISSUE 01.07.2017