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Laurie Penny on surveillance: Cameron's cynical appeal to three of the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse

The emergency surveillance law being rushed through Parliament next week exploits all the usual moral panic suspects - criminals, terrorists and paedophiles - to undermine our fundamental rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg hold a news conference to announce the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill on 10th July 2014. Photo: Getty Images
Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg hold a news conference to announce the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill on 10th July 2014. Photo: Getty Images

Illegal spying is illegal, except when it isn't. It has just been announced that a highly unusual emergency law will retroactively provide a legal basis for collecting the data and internet browsing history of all British citizens. 

The hastily-announced Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill will force phone companies and ISPs to store data - who you text, call and contact, when and for how long - and hand it over to the security services on demand. This was already going on, but in April, the European Court of Justice ruled that the practice was unlawful. Now they’re going to make it lawful, with no discussion and no argument.

The MPs who will be voting on this legislation have not read it. They haven't had time. The whole thing is being rammed through early next week with almost no debate, with terms already agreed between the three major parties behind closed doors.

There are countless ways to define democracy, each more convenient than the next for governments looking to post-rationalise their lack of mandate, but this is surely pushing it.

This new government spying law will give even more powers to what is arguably the most intrusive, invasive state surveillance programme in any country that continues to call itself a democracy - with a promise of more to come after the next election. Scrambling to justify themselves today, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister assured furious back-benchers and an even more outraged public that this bill is about catching not just terrorists, but "criminals, terrorists and paedophiles".

Bingo. That’s three of the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse right there, the excuses which are always used to justify curtailing civil liberties online (the other one is ‘money laundering’, as cited in the Cypherpunk FAQ).

Cameron’s assurance that this legislation will help the state catch paedophiles would seem crass and desperate at the best of times. However, given that the British political establishment has lately proven itself unable to deal with paedophilia and pederasty within its own ranks, this isn't just cynical - it's goddamn tasteless.

So what does this bill mean for the rest of us? As I wrote last week:

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”. How’s that going?"

What is happening here is quite simple. The basic processes of British democracy are being overridden in order to ensure that the British public can continue to be spied upon. Our democracy is being undermined so that our faith in that democracy can be further exploited.

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.