Recently, in a cynical exploitation of the widespread horror and fear following the Charlie Hebdo attack, David Cameron announced that he wants to ban encrypted services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, unless Britain’s intelligence services are given full access to these communications. This would extend surveillance of electronic communications to an almost ubiquitous level in the UK.
The announcement should serve as a wake-up call to all those who care about basic civil liberties in the UK and it should reinvigorate privacy campaigners who have quietened somewhat since the Snowden leaks. As one commenter on a New York Times blog about the article succinctly puts it: “1984 was a warning, not a guide book”. But a guide book it apparently is to the UK government; indeed, plaster up a load of ‘GCHQ is watching you’ posters everywhere (which would be true after all) and we’d be about half-way there.
The argument for increasing the current surveillance capacity is that it will help to prevent terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, the truth is that terrorist plots –particularly ‘basic’ ones, involving just a few rampaging gunmen, such as in Paris –could still easily be organised even with the proposed, expanded surveillance powers. You could only completely prevent them if literally every form of communication in the UK was monitored (including conversations in homes and in public places), but even then coded messages might go unnoticed.
If the UK was serious about tackling terrorism they would try and address the root causes of the issue: Western military interference and dominance in the Middle East. In a way, it’s almost surprising that there haven’t been more terrorist attacks against the West, committed by furious young men from the Middle East. After all, for decades the West (mainly led by the USA, but the UK has of course played a large role) has propped up heinous dictators and extremist groups who support our interests, violently over-thrown governments who don’t and invaded countries under false pretexts to secure natural resources and geostrategic dominance. History of course can’t be re-written but surely a hands-off approach to the Middle East by the UK would be far more effective at preventing terrorist attacks here than just confronting the manifestations of hatred against us head on?
These measures to increase mass-surveillance will be ineffective in preventing terrorism, infringe on our right to privacy and could too easily be used to consolidate and protect the power elites. Since the intelligence services by their nature are extremely un-transparent and secretive, it’s all too likely that their surveillance powers will be used to spy on protest movements and dissident groups that threaten centralised power. There’s an increased risk of this if UK government becomes completely seized by corporate and private interests, as has happened in the US. Unaccountable and unrepresentative governments are more likely and able to get away with abusing this sort of power. So in the interests of civil liberties and democracy, mass-surveillance should be reversed, not expanded.