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5 November 2015updated 06 Nov 2015 10:46am

The Conservatives’ rhetoric around data surveillance should frighten you

Don't let the Home Office mislead you: privacy and security aren't mutually exclusive.  

By Barbara Speed

What do Richard Graham, Conservative MP for Gloucester, and Joseph Goebbels have in common?

If you’re Richard Graham (or a Gloucester constituent) you’re probably hoping the answer is “not much”. But yesterday, while defending the Tory government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill, Graham inadvertently echoed the words of the man who once said “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. He, as Goebbels allegedly did in 1933, announced that when it comes to surveillance, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. 

At first glance, it may seem easy to agree. We live in a society where the idea that we could be enemies of the state, while also acting in what we believe to be good faith, seems ludicrous. We live in an age where the data governments can access about us is so great that we believe anyone monitoring us will be able to tell that we’re upstanding citizens. We’re unlikely to be blamed for a murder we didn’t commit if GCHQ has all our Whatsapps and our dropped pins and our check-ins. No one could comb through our Pinterest pages and decide we’re a legitimate threat to national security. 

Except that, of course, they could. We as a populace don’t decide what makes someone an enemy of the state – the state does. We are lucky to live in a society where, up to a point, we have control over who constitutes that state and what policies they follow, but as Edward Snowden demonstrated, this control is also limited. In her speech today, Theresa May airily explained that the state gave itself the powers to bulk-harvest our data without telling us because it considered them “too sensitive to disclose“. This new bill is an attempt to back-legitimise something that occurred without our knowledge for over 20 years. Let’s not forget that. Let’s wonder what else might be “too sensitive to disclose” about our government’s handling of our rights to privacy. 

In terms of transparency, the bill is at least a step forward. Under it, the biggest intrusions to our online privacy must be signed off by both ministers and judicial commissioners – unless, that is, someone defines these cases as “urgent”: needed within the next five days. Police superintendents or inspectors can still sign off requests to see information about our browsing history (where we went online, but not the individual pages we looked at or messages we sent). Meanwhile, the security services will continue to harvest our data in bulk, and store it in ways that we can only hope are secure against hacks or leaks. 

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Data harvesting, even in 1994, was nothing new. In Soviet Russia, the state collected data on unremarkable citizens for years via surveillance and reporting by peers, just in case that person may ever become of interest to the state. In East Germany, the secret services stole peoples’ underwear to keep in jars, and built up scent libraries that could be used to train dogs to chase them. These were essentially unremarkable data points, to be called into play to help the state chase down someone once they – not the populace at large – deemed them a threat. 

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Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (still law in the UK, unless Theresa May gets her way and scraps it) dictates our right to a private and family life. This includes respect for private and confidential information, and the storing and sharing of this information. This, crucially, shows an acceptance in law that privacy from the state is not shady or anti-security – it’s a basic right. The fact that in the UK this right seems less instinctive than the rest of the Human Rights Act – the fact that two women behind me on a bus could assure each other that “Obama can read MY emails, I have nothing to hide” after the Snowden leaks – only shows how lucky we are. Other parts of Europe learned about the importance of this right the hard way. Germany has perhaps the strictest data privacy protection laws of anywhere in Europe. Wonder why. 

No one could argue that Richard Graham MP, or indeed any of the Conservative government, is a Joseph Goebbels figure. But what does it take to create one, or a shadow of one? A sudden rise in Nationalism? Another economic crash? A calm decision from the Home Office that all Muslims are worthy of close surveillance, just in case? 

Until then, our data is pouring into vats which could be accessible to whatever government next enters the House, and the one after that, and after that. They could be accessible to someone with the right technical skills, too. We should not be made to feel guilty for worrying about why our data is collected, and what is done with it next. Security and privacy are not mutually exclusive. We should not be made to feel that in protecting one, we are attacking the other.