Big Brother, Enraged Brits and National Security

by Aube Rey Lescure

Ever since the London terrorist attacks during the summer or 2005, the UK government has made major efforts to revamp its domestic security sector. Back in the day, London’s new and extravagant surveillance system made headlines: cameras were installed on streets in a tight network where every inch of London could be monitored. If a video camera on a certain street was broken or intentionally damaged, the next closest video camera would zoom in and take on its role. Four days ago, British surveillance efforts gained international attention again when the Sunday Times broke the story of governmental plans to allow monitoring of citizen communications without a warrant.

The phone calls, emails, text messages and Internet conversations of UK citizens could be recorded and accessed by the government without justification. The Home Office was careful to specify that the content of the above listed conversations would not be available to the government, but simply the length of communication and names of people on both ends.

As one may expect, the nation went berserk as soon as the Sunday Times broke the story. Accusations of Big Brother-esque totalitarianism flew left and right. The more mild-mannered accused the UK of becoming a giant “nanny state”.  The potential law’s most outspoken critic, Conservative lawmaker David Davis stated: ‘If you want to intercept, if you want to look at something, fine; if it is a terrorist or a criminal, go and ask a magistrate and you’ll get your approval.’

Davis’ words echo a popular rationale: yes, we do need government intelligence agencies to protect our national security, but don’t come bother regular chaps like me. In other words, we absolutely support your monitoring of criminals and terrorists since you have a good reason to suspect they are up to no good, but restrict yourself to targeted monitoring and not screening the entire population. The blatant problem with this rationale is that it fails to be an effective prevention tactic. We can, with some reservations, of course, draw a parallel to airport security: it would be silly to say that only registered offenders and undeniably suspicious-looking people should go through security, while the vast majority of your average-looking innocent tourist and businessman can be let into the gate without inspection. Sometimes you just can’t tell, and you just can’t take the risk. Furthermore, the Home Office’s new proposal is not as burdensome as being subjected to suspicion at an airport: your data would be recorded behind the scenes, and wouldn’t have any effect on you unless you are planning to blow-up Westminster, in which case a little encounter with the Government Communications Headquarters is probably on the horizon anyways. They are not going to bother to alert spouses about emails unfaithful husbands are writing to mistresses.

Big Brother Watch is one of the outspoken activist groups against the planned UK surveillance laws (Wikimedia Commons).

But the unfaithful husbands & co., naturally, are antsy that the information is out there to begin with, despite the fact that there is virtually no chance the government will interfere unless someone is up to some serious mischief. Furthermore, this 2012 Labor/Lib-Dem surveillance plan is distinctly different from the 2006 Conservative plan in that it does not entail a central government database. Rather, Internet companies will be paid to track and store data on their own for the government to retrieve on an as-needed basis. Data will be deleted yearly. The following question is then raised: who do you trust with your private information more—a central government database or profit-oriented Internet companies? Critics of the law worry that a Pandora’s box will be open once that giant tally of private information gets stored away in the cyberworld—even if we trust that the government is well intentioned; what if this information inadvertently falls into malicious hands? To which the cynics will reply: as if Facebook and Google don’t know the content of all your private communications anyways.

Bottom line is, there comes a point where people need to take down the flowers from their hair and stop calling for giant rallies as soon as something that looks remotely like an imposition of big government is put forward. The UK government isn’t proposing something that drastic here. If anything, it’s just trying to keep up with the levels of monitoring it had in the previous decade, and struggling nonetheless.  Six years ago, the British government could access 90% of communication data in the country. Now, as more and more crime-related planning and organization is conducted on the Internet and through Skype, the British government, while conforming to old guidelines, can only access about 75% of all communication data. Let’s phrase it this way: if we told UK citizens that “the mechanisms for maintaining your national security are now obsolete and have decreased 20% in efficiency since 2006”, many Brits would probably take up banners and go protest that up and down Downing Street.

The terrorist threat is real and not merely just “scare-mongering.”  London has seen it in 2005. There’s certainly people who want London to see it again in 2012, with the summer Olympics approaching soon. What the GCHQ is proposing is not as wild as it sounds—if airport security checks have become accepted, then, as a larger societal application of the same model, so should governmental access to data.

Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College.  She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on E.U. affairs.  Contact her at