Benevolent suspicion: The digital privacy debate

Imagine your normal morning routine: You wake up, turn on the TV or stream some music whilst you get something to eat; you text some friends, perhaps even make a phone call; you quickly browse the internet for the latest news whilst messaging friends via Facebook. It all seems fairly innocuous. Now imagine that your bedroom is in fact a cell —one cell out of hundreds — arranged around the perimeter of a vast circular building in which the centre stands a watchtower where, behind the blacked-out veneer, stands a faceless guard who is potentially peering through the window into your room, surveying each and every one of your actions, watching for any suspicious activity or misdemeanour. Such was Jeremy Bentham’s chilling daydream of the Panopticon, the ideal penal institution where inmates were forced to regulate their own behaviour because of the constant possibility of surveillance.

Give me some poetic license to assert that, after the passing of the DRIP (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers) bill in July this year, the nation has transformed into a metaphysical Panopticon wherein the data produced by each and every click on a web browser, every phone call or text message you make, is directly harvested by government agencies in the interests of national security. The bill was passed under wider initiative of RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) and is the legal justification for state-sponsored mass surveillance. It ensures that telecoms and internet service providers store all personal data passed through their systems for a period of up to 12 months, all of which is directly accessible by the police and security forces at will.

Framed under the Privacy rights vs. Security continuum that structures the debate on this issue, the bill makes perfect sense: terrorists, like the rest of us, use social media and telecommunications to communicate and co-ordinate their projects. So, target their personal informational networks and you can hinder their schemes before they come to fruition. It functions in a remarkably fashion to ‘PreCrime,’ a technology used by the state in the fictional world of Minority Report to capture criminals before they commit their crimes.

Theresa May said that without bills like DRIP, 'trails will go cold, terrorist plots will go undetected'
Theresa May said that without bills like DRIP, ‘trails will go cold, terrorist plots will go undetected’

If these measures entail the curtailing of privacy rights, then what has been the cost of security? — Well, rather paradoxically, security itself. DRIP is an effective means of protecting civilians from external threats, but it does not protect civilians from the state itself. In the Panopticon there are two facts: First, that inmates are surveyed; second, that the inmates are lawbreakers. Mass surveillance can only be justified if it is first assumed that all citizens are potential criminals. This contradicts a legal keystone of one of our fundamental civic rights: habeas corpus, or ‘innocent until proven guilty;’ in virtue of being watched by the state, we are all implicitly assumed guilty. It seems rather strange that we must first be assumed criminals before we can be protected.

We have become dependent on the internet in supplying us with the information that defines how we see the world

It might seem a little unrealistic to paint an Orwellian dystopia, but the way in which DRIP was passed illustrates a lot about how those in power view the electorate. The bill was streamlined through parliament, bypassing due democratic process by disallowing MPs the chance to review the details of the legislation. Such a government clearly does not respect the abilities of the population to decide for themselves on significant issues such as their privacy rights. Having already curtailed privacy rights; the next logical step would be regulating information flows on the internet. We have become dependent on the internet in supplying us with the information that defines how we see the world; with services like Google and Wikipedia, answers to questions are immediate and direct. By censoring sources mass surveillance becomes a tool for the manipulation of populations to serve ulterior ends. – Such a move would again be justified in the name of national security.

We are living in a digitalised world – that’s a fact. By 2007, over 93% of the world’s data was stored in a digital format, and the trend is only increasing in pace. Our civic freedoms, however, are being steadily eroded by state policy. Whereas we look nostalgically at the yellow-leaved photo-albums of our grand-parents, our children – and the state — will be flicking through the photos of our Facebook profile from years ago. This isn’t right. It’s time we began to take our digital lives a little more seriously and did something about it.

Richard Jarram

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