In a month in which Theresa May unveiled stricter UK surveillance measures, The Gryphon asks: "Is mass surveillance ever okay?"
“Big Brother is watching you.” That is what we were told by George Orwell in his famous work – 1984. Of the people I speak to at university, there appears to be a collective suspicion of mass surveillance, even a consensus of fear. I, however, am not fearful of a world with large-scale surveillance – where governments can watch where we go, and check what we say. I am not fearful of that world. I am fearful of a world without this.
Mass surveillance undoubtedly reduces crime. If surveillance were intensified, if it was on every street, of better quality and better staffed – who would commit such petty crimes as breaking and entering if it meant being handcuffed within the hour?
In regards to larger-scale crimes, notably terrorism, the atrocities that occurred in Paris last weekend must be considered. In doing so, I’d like to use this space to express my personal sadness for and solidarity with the people of France. It cannot go unnoticed that mass surveillance could have saved lives there. Had the French government been given unlimited access to online communications, there may have been arrests early enough to prevent the devastation. Mass surveillance is one of only a few non-violent options in the counter-terrorism operation.
Having a civil servant read such messages as ‘anyone fancy going to watch Hunger Games tonight?’ doesn’t alarm me to any degree. The only reason I’d have to be fearful of my government having this power is if I had a reason to care. If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.
The most prominent argument against surveillance on a mass scale is that it is considered as an attack on our freedom. In a time when our footsteps can be monitored, our locations registered and our messages stored, we would surrender a number of our most precious freedoms to the government. But they are freedoms we were all happy to sell to Apple when we bought iPhones on mass.
There is a way to think about this loss of certain freedoms; not as surrendering them, but investing them. To ensure we are healthy, we surrender some of our income as tax in return for the NHS. To protect us in war, we surrender some more of our income as tax in return for the armed forces. Consider surrendering freedoms as a tax, in return for mass surveillance. It’s a freedoms tax, just like an income tax. I like money, I like my freedoms. But I like my health, safety and security enough to invest.
The attacks in Paris are likely to see David Cameron fast track the Investigatory Powers Bill. The bill will grant British security agencies new powers to collect private communications in bulk. This is a bill to keep us safe. We shouldn’t fear it passing through the House of Commons. We should fear it failing.
Big Brother is not watching us. Big Brother is watching over us.
Big Brother is not an enemy. Big Brother is our guardian.
In light of the recent events in Paris, this discussion is needed more than ever: no one should have to endure the devastating effects of a terrorist attack.
Mass surveillance, however, is not the answer to ending this threat.
In the coming weeks, Theresa May will try to rush through any number of debilitating measures; a 15% increase in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ personnel was announced within hours of the attacks, for example. This government is in favour of stripping us of all individual rights, privacies and liberties – buzzwords that have come to seem meaningless.
But rights, privacy, liberty: these are everything. They are individuality, they are democracy, they are the very foundation of an egalitarian society.
How people can be so unconcerned by their total lack of privacy, in an age of snoopers’ charters, phone tapping scandals and whistle blowers is deeply alarming.
Yes. I understand the support for mass surveillance – we all know that terrorism is a threat, as we were painfully reminded so recently. There are bad people in the world, and sometimes it’s useful to know what they’re doing. Right.
But one mustn’t overlook the danger posed by the all-powerful politicians. The endless and unfounded trust that the general population seems to have in the government is a danger in itself.
It has become an increasingly depressing cliché, but the country is bringing Orwell’s 1984 to life before our very eyes. Our freedom to act and not be traced in every call, text, and Google search is being replaced by a ‘freedom from terrorism’. But not only are the two not equal, an authoritarian state is considerably more dangerous than a handful of vengeful individuals, whose power and significance is deeply overstated time and again during these rare attacks on the western world.
‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’. We’ve all heard it before, but who is really stupid enough to use that phrase – other than a Tory MP just this month? What exactly are we talking about hiding? Illegal activity presumably? Illegality is not a marker for morality, the laws are created in a small room and influenced by businesses who profit from them – for the government to be able to track and punish ‘illegal activity’, not to mention the 99.99% that is totally legal activity, puts us a stone’s throw away from a police state – when conformity becomes the only morality.
How can we reasonably trust the same politicians who have lied to us time and again, who start wars for profit, who use taxpayers’ money to claim fraudulent expenses, with our every thought, word and action?
Mass surveillance is a divestment of power away from the individual and into the hands of government. And that is how we merrily wander into a totalitarian state, distracted by sensationalist news of benefit fraud, anti-refugee propaganda and mindless celebrity gossip.
Ultimately, this comes down to whether or not we trust those in power, those with access to our information – or as the great Edward Snowden states, “the activity log of your life.” Granting the government the right to use this invasive technology to inspect your every act is the ultimate sacrifice of freedom, all to fight this war on ‘terror’ – a threat exaggerated and proliferated by the media to create fear and ultimately submission – the submission of our last scrap of liberty.
Restricting liberties, to defend liberty. A paradox so blatant only a politician could sell it to you as anything but.
[Images: Shutterstock & Oli Scarff/Getty Images]