Charlotte Green questions why we are happy to allow the state to violate our civil liberties in the name of our protection
Many of us have expressed apathy and unconcern with the prospect of being spied on. Hell, we’ve got nothing to hide. It doesn’t matter that you are being monitored every second of every day. The major governments of the world are sanctioning surveillance, not on the basis of your guilt, but on the grounds that one day you might possibly become guilty. And still the collective reaction is one of indifference. Who really cares if a few phone calls are tapped or a couple of emails are analysed. There seems to be no line that NSA or GCHQ can cross, no threshold of privacy invasion that once breached will lead the masses to denounce their practice unethical and unconstitutional.
As, fundamentally, it most certainly is.
Slowly though, it is happening. There is a moment when that realisation takes root in your mind. Suddenly the uncertainties, the disassociation evaporates and it becomes clear that we are allowing something terribly, dangerously powerful to embed itself in our lives without so much as whimper. For me the light-bulb moment occurred when I came across a speech, containing this quote, “You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: up; man’s old — old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.”
As someone who proudly affiliates myself with the political left, I was horrified to find that I was wholly agreeing with the words of Ronald Reagan.
To reach this point something must have gone horribly wrong.
Establishing exactly what has gone wrong is rather difficult however. Since Snowden blew the whistle to the Guardian back in June we have been subject to a deluge of information, practically water-boarded with it during this last month. It’s gone from Nineteen Eighty-Four to Huxley’s Brave New World within a remarkably short space of time. From being deprived of information, we are now so saturated with it that we have been reduced to passivity and inactivity. Each new scandal eclipses the last, and much like a Hollywood blockbuster, by the fourth or fifth sequel we’re pretty indifferent.
The reveals are coming thick and fast, and even at the time of writing this I am aware that by next week this article will seem out of date. The last seven days have been dominated by the fury of the Merkel, and we’ve seen some truly spectacular cowering from White House officials and congressmen in the wake of that freezing phone call.
We’ve also heard thinly veiled threats from our Prime Minister against those papers, such as the Guardian, who flouted the state perception of ‘social responsibility’; “…if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.” He mentioned D-notices and injunctions in the same way that a threatening man in a pub might mention the quality of hospital food.
And this is just the latest indication that our current government is dangerously keen on restricting information accessibility; since last November the government has been considering a series of proposals that would make it easier for public authorities to refuse Freedom of Information requests on grounds of cost. Their cost priority is, of course financial, not the democratic or social cost. In light of this the new press regulations seem ominous, a way to provide the state with the means to gag the press, without having to resort to controversial public procedures such as D-notices.
The state has already acted in dubious ways to prevent Snowden’s information becoming public. In August the spouse of a Guardian writer was detained by Heathrow officials under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. He was held for over nine hours, denied a lawyer and his electronic devices were confiscated. His partner is Glenn Greenwald, the reporter responsible for revealing NSA’s mass surveillance programme.
Being a complicated issue is not an excuse for lethargy. You would not permit a group of people belonging to a state organisation to break into your house, search through your personal possessions and read your private documents without a warrant, without your consent, without evidence that you had been involved in any wrongdoing. Imagine your concern upon discovering that someone had been reading your letters – your bank statements, bills, legal correspondence, even love letters.
Yet all of these things are happening in the digital sphere. Through Prism, a deadly secret surveillance program run by the NSA, spy agencies have access to the information from servers including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo. The British agency GCHQ has access to data from Prism. Both organisations are also able to mass-intercept data from fibre optic cables, thus allowing them to access both phone and internet networks.
Why do we accept this violation if it is digital not physical? In reality there is no difference. And by not speaking out, by tacit acceptance you are permitting these intrusions into your life. We are no longer ignorant of their practices yet we watch dully through thickly lidded eyes as our civil liberties, so hard won, are stripped from us in the name of our protection, but without our knowledge or consultation.
Does the end really justify the means?
Yes a few have risen up, marched on Washington, spoken in support of Snowden and Manning and demanded constitutional safeguards. But, I suspect most of us would prefer to have been kept in the dark, anything for a quiet life.