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Laurie Penny on terror and surveillance: Oh look! There's a new bogeyman on the scene to justify online spying

Liam Fox insists that the “public will accept” increased surveillance because of the threat of terrorism. One suspects that if we don’t accept it, we’ll be made to.

Spy on the wall: a painting of GCHQ displayed in the Mount Street Gallery, London in 2011. Photo: Getty
Spy on the wall: a painting of GCHQ displayed in the Mount Street Gallery, London in 2011. Photo: Getty

Three summers ago, I went to Brighton with a few members of UK Uncut, the fancy-dress protest group. We were there for an anti-austerity march that happened to coincide with a sunny weekend by the seaside. When the march was over, we decided, like the hardbitten domestic extremists we were, to have a paddle.

It was then that we noticed that a group of police officers who were not local were tailing us. There were more of them than there were of us and they trailed about 50 metres behind, being as surreptitious as it’s possible to be when you’re dressed in lurid, yellow high-vis jackets. The officers followed us down to the seafront, where we had an extremely suspicious little sit-down and some chips. They watched us eat, seeming a bit embarrassed and more than a bit sweaty.

Police officers watching you paddle are one thing. You can, at least, see them and when they eventually get orders to give up, you can watch them leave. The same cannot be said for the enormous data-mining programmes being wielded against British citizens on the internet.

The ongoing revelations from the Edward Snowden affair have shown that the British security services are tracking vast amounts of online activity. In June, it emerged that a legal loophole has let them monitor all of our private messages for years; they forgot to mention this, apparently, because they were very busy. If you use Google, Facebook or Twitter to communicate with your friends or colleagues – sorry, co-conspirators – those messages are routed through servers based in the US, which makes them “external” traffic for the purposes of the intelligence services. “External” traffic covers almost all emails, online searches and browser history. That allows GCHQ legally to intercept your mails, drunk texts and love letters – and, since it’s legal, it must be OK.

Liam Fox, former defence secretary, seems to believe this is a good thing and thinks voters will put up with ever-greater intrusions on their private communications because of the new threat posed by the Islamic dissident group Isis in Syria and Iraq. On 22 June, Fox told Andrew Marr that the debate about what personal information can be collected by the state “is a problem that is going to be with us for a very long time . . . You have people at the moment, in light of Snowden, saying that the state has too many powers.” He then insisted that the “public will accept” surveillance because of the threat of terrorism. One suspects that if we don’t accept it, we’ll be made to.

The security services are not requesting new powers. It’s more that there’s a new bogeyman on the scene and, oh, look! Look at this enormous surveillance network we already had in place that just got leaked! What a happy coincidence!

State surveillance is only incidentally about catching terrorists. The apprehension of shady fundamentalist miscreants is the excuse used to extend the powers of our government to monitor ordinary people, whether or not they have done or plan to do anything wrong. Such tracking is an everyday invasion of privacy that changes behaviour and intimidates minority communities. In 2009-2010, more than 100,000 stop-and-searches were made under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Not one of them led to a terrorism-related arrest.

One of the cornerstones of the coalition agreement, the compromise on whose back this right-wing government glided into Downing Street, was the promise of “a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion”, including the “right to non-violent protest”. How’s that going? In a 2009 speech at Imperial College London, now conveniently deleted from the Conservative Party’s website, David Cameron condemned Labour’s surveillance programmes and asked: “How have we got ourselves into the position where there is such a marked imbalance of power between the citizen and the state?”

In 2010, civil liberties were on the lips of young voters, many of whom turned out to support Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates promising to roll back the “surveillance state”. Young black and Asian people, in particular, had grown up under surveillance, being stopped and searched on their own streets. People with nothing to hide had everything to fear, if they happened to have the wrong skin colour.

In recent years, it has been notoriously tricky getting British voters to care about surveillance, even in the wake of the Snowden revelations about the extent of spying on us by the NSA and GCHQ. This is understandable. As a nation, there are only so many things that we can be outraged about at the same time and people who are worried about whether they can feed their children today and educate them tomorrow have rather less bandwidth to bother about their communications being intercepted.

However, austerity and surveillance are very much linked. A government impoverishing its electorate and claiming that it is for their own good can expect resistance. Resistance has duly occurred and where it has, the full power of the surveillance state and brutal protest policing has been wielded to stamp it out. Not even elected representatives are exempt. The Green peer and former councillor Jenny Jones was recently informed that she is listed on police databases as an “extremist”. So were members of UK Uncut and of the peaceful Occupy protests, who were tailed, pepper-sprayed and mass-arrested until the organisations imploded under the pressure.

What went wrong? The coalition was elected on a promise to roll back state surveillance but it is now using the same language of “terror” to justify more invasive monitoring than anything that New Labour put in place.

Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is available for now. She will also be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here.