Britain Unchallenged As The Most Surveilled State In The World

22nd August 2016 / Surveillance, United Kingdom

By Graham Vanbergen – The latest iteration of the so-called “Snoopers Charter” is quite simply an expansion of the surveillance powers and its ability to collect bulk data than it already had. The Investigatory Powers (IP) Bill, really seeks to make legal what was illegal. These were the activities the UK intelligence agencies have used for years to collect, store and access information about internet users which continues to cause consternation with privacy advocates and frustration with the government. 

There are two basic arguments. Critics of the bill say the ‘snoopers charter’ undermines basic human rights on the grounds that it is infringing many aspects of peoples private lives. The government position is that it is necessary to combat terrorism.

It is here that a state of eternal perplexity is argued over. The government uses the argument that to keep us safe they need to know what everyone is doing. Citizens expect the government to ensure safety, particularly from terrorists. The problem is two fold and neither are difficult to understand at all. People do not trust thegovernment with all this information and people know that the government will lie and go beyond an agreed mandate anyway. We know this because on both accounts it was Edward Snowden who made everyone aware of the problem in the first place, not the government. In the meantime, the government view on whistleblowers says it all, as does its treatment of Julian Assange and others.

“Certain aspects of the bill will not survive under the European Convention on Human Rights, if we manage to stay in the EU,” Joanna Cherry, a Scottish National Party (SNP) MP said in respect of the bill. The SNP recently unsuccessfully opposed the bill. Cherry says: “At least the IP Bill is honest about the fact that it permits the collection of bulk data. However, we shouldn’t be too congratulatory of the bill as we have now gone further than any other Western democracy.

“The SNP felt that the bill should be in accordance with European Union law, that we shouldn’t be going further than other Western democracies and that we were interested in having suspicion-based surveillance rather than suspicionless surveillance.”

She added: “America has rolled back from bulk collection at the very time that Britain is trying to roll out greater surveillance powers on a statutory basis.”

‘Suspicion-based surveillance’ is when intelligence services have an interest in a particular person or organization that they wish to target using surveillance. In contrast, ‘suspicionless surveillance’ refers to the collection of bulk data without any justifiable reason why the data is needed.

Scrutiny of government surveillance only increased as a result of the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.  It was then subsequently found that the regime that governs the sharing between Britain and the US of electronic communications intercepted in bulk was unlawful up until 2014, a ‘secretive‘ UK tribunal ruled. The government agency GCHQ had been in breach of human rights laws over surveillance for the previous seven years. This relates to the PRISM intercept programme. I strongly suggest you read about PRISM HERE if you have not done so already and then scroll down to UK involvement.

The existence of Prism and Upstream was revealed by the Guardian from documents provided by Edward Snowden. The case brought by Liberty and Privacy International was the first in the UK to challenge GCHQ’s participation in these programmes. Lawyers argued that receiving information about people in Britain from the NSA sidestepped protections provided by the UK legal system.

In effect, what was deemed illegal for GCHQ to do, was sidestepped by gaining the same information from a foreign source, in this case America’s NSA. In the meantime, the NSA were paying millions to technology companies, which the NSA says includes Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook, to meet its demands in the wake of the ruling from its own Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (Fisa) court.

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In another twist, it was the NSA making demands of Britain’s intelligence services that ended with them paying over £100million for GCHQ to advance their systems and programmes to meet ever more extreme requests for information over their own citizens.

In the meantime, the USA have rolled back their own mass surveillance systems and the suspicion is that they want foreign agencies such as GCHQ to do the spying of their own population, now subsequently deemed illegal in their home country.

The effect, that as Joanna Cherry, the Scottish MP said previously, is that Britain is the most surveilled country of any other western democracy. In fact, it is safe to say that it’s worse than that, as the vast majority of the world does not have the technology to do what Britain can now do as a result of American demands and its financial input.

Britain has been accused of being the most surveilled country in the world since the beginning of the millennium. Here is a Telegraph headline from 2006 – “Britain: the most spied on nation in the world“. And this article had no knowledge of GCHQ’s illegal activities until 2013. Here is another report over a decade old: The Brits: Most Surveilled in World” by America’s CBN News.

In his full first interview as surveillance commissioner back last year, Tony Porter – a former senior counter-terrorism officer – said the increasing use of surveillance technology, including body-worn video, drones and number plate recognition systems, risks changing the “psyche of the community” by reducing individuals to trackable numbers in a database. Britain now has 6 million CCTV cameras alone.

As the US and UK overtook the surveillance capacities of the Chinese and Russians years ago, it is reasonable to understand what the UN special rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci said last year in describing British surveillance oversight as being “a joke”, and said the situation is worse than anything George Orwell could have foreseen.

In modern Britain, privacy has departed the real world. The surveillance state is becoming oppressive. Government agencies swap information. They know who you are, what you read, see and hear. They hold biometric data, know how much you earn and what you spend it on. They know what subscriptions, books and magazines you buy. They have access to your most intimate health records, can switch on your mobile phone, listen to calls and track everything. The UK even has a policy of mass surveillance of all residents’ Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google use. They know who you interact with, who your friends and family are and their connections, even when you switch the lights on at home.

Then a whole new level of privacy violations were exposed when a surveillance programme was revealed two years ago. The government were illegally intercepting nearly 2 millions images every six months, including sexually explicit ones of citizens under no suspicion. This program was started as a prototype in 2008. No-one knows just how many images the government actually has of citizens but some experts have likened it to a huge digital “mugbook”.

And as Cannataci went on to say – “In our case we are looking at a technology that is ever-developing, and ever-developing more sinister capabilities” and that surveillance in Britain “has gone out of control.”

What we are witnessing now is a serious expansion of the British surveillance state whilst other nation’s around the world are tempering or restraining their own surveillance agencies.

One negative effect of this is that the public are now self-censoring. In one study, 87% of respondents who were aware of state surveillance said they had changed the way they use technology in some way. But nearly 40% those who had read a lot about state surveillance had significantly changed their behaviour, particularly on-line.

A large scale YouGov survey stated that of 15,000 people in 13 countries there was no majority support (74% against) for mass surveillance. In Britain, only 1 in 7 agreed that foreign nationals should be surveilled in full. The report also found that people who knew they were being being watched also restricted their use of the Internet to obtain health advice.

The public are unaware of what the state has developed since the Snowden files were made public just two years ago and the government, quite clearly, would not offer that information willingly. As the years go by, deeper and more sophisticated surveillance systems will search out every single detail of our private lives so intrusively so, that soon, it won’t feel that much different to some sort of pernicious authoritarian police state as Britain’s scope of surveillance around the world goes unchallenged. There are many oppressive regimes around the world, but none have the surveillance capability that Britain has developed in recent years.

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