“As we lurch from crisis to crisis in public life, you see a ratcheting of state powers,” warns Silkie Carlo, the director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch. “And as this goes along with the technological revolution we’re going through, there’s been a massive expansion of the surveillance state.”
Taking its name from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother Watch (BBW) has been sounding the alarm about increased surveillance in the UK since its foundation in 2009. Now the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the realisation of privacy advocates’ worst nightmares: to combat a health crisis, we have readily handed over our rights to everyday life to the state, which is auctioning them back to us with enhanced tracking systems as the price tag.
This cause has tended to be associated with the libertarian right – as has BBW itself (perhaps unfairly). It was founded by Matthew Elliott, the former chief executive of Vote Leave and the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and was once based at 55 Tufton Street, the home of several right-wing think tanks.
But BBW defies easy political categorisation. Both the Labour socialist Tony Benn and the former Tory cabinet minister David Davis spoke at its launch, and past work includes campaigning against digital strip searches of sexual assault victims and drawing attention to racial bias in algorithms. The group has condemned police treatment of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protesters, as well as the actions of companies such as Cambridge Analytica.
Carlo, 31, who has been BBW’s director since 2018, previously worked at the left-learning advocacy group Liberty and on Edward Snowden’s official defence fund. She herself is politically unaligned and says BBW has always recognised that the defence of civil liberties transcends party politics. She points out that Tory stalwarts such as the former leader Iain Duncan Smith joined Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats this month in objecting to Covid-19 vaccine passports.
“Our mission is to fight for a freer future,” she explains, outlining the work BBW does in terms of lobbying, education and strategic litigation.
“That has become particularly apt since the onset of the pandemic. Decisions that are being made very rapidly now are going to have an impact for years to come.”
When I arranged to talk to Carlo, I assumed we would focus on the widely discussed arguments against vaccine passports: whether they are truly necessary on public health grounds, the potential for data breaches and the concerns raised by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission of discrimination such as a “two-tier society”. And she is indeed deeply anxious about all those things, and about Britain becoming a “papers-carrying country” where citizens need a licence to engage with society.
But for Carlo, the risk is far greater than we are even beginning to comprehend. She puts the debate over passports in the context of an expanding surveillance state: from the ubiquity of CCTV to post-9/11 security powers that have never been rescinded. She describes the past decade as “a prolonged state of emergency and exceptionalism”, and fears that Covid – like terrorism – will become the pretext for governments to act in ever more invasive ways.
Those fears are already being realised, with this government seizing powers to bypass parliamentary scrutiny and curtailing the right to protest.
“The rule of law has basically broken down. The police for a long time have been detached from the rule of law and have become quite comfortable operating in that way,” Carlo says, citing the behaviour of Met officers at the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard last month.
Combine this creeping authoritarianism with new technology such as biometrics – which BBW has been opposing for years – and suddenly governments have an unprecedented ability to track citizens. And in a pandemic, things move fast. The majority of Brits haven’t been offered a vaccine yet, but already there is talk of Covid passports being underpinned by facial recognition technology. It’s being sold as a win for accessibility (not everyone has a smartphone, but everyone has a face), something less intrusive than a physical ID card.
“In dystopian fiction, the absurd endpoint is the microchip,” says Carlo. “It’s under your skin and it holds this data on you. But fiction writers have really missed a trick, because facial recognition is a type of surveillance that’s so much more pervasive and insidious. You can’t take your face off.”
Being open about your vaccination status might seem a small price to pay for the reopening of society. But what if that’s just the start? What is being proposed is surveillance infrastructure that could quickly include vast amounts of data held on us by corporations and officials, accessible without our knowledge every time we pass a biometric camera.
“Your face has been turned into a barcode that unlocks data that other people hold on you. It’s impossible to think of anything more intrusive or more dangerous or more dystopian than that.”
None of this is to underestimate the imperative for governments to take radical action to save lives. But how we respond to Covid-19 now has serious implications for the future of civil liberties – especially if, as with counterterrorism laws, “temporary” measures quickly become permanent. And while we might trust our government to keep us safe now, this kind of surveillance architecture is, Carlo says, why Edward Snowden blew the whistle on US security practices in 2013.
“He defined it as ‘turnkey tyranny’: you only need a change of circumstances or a change of government before things that might seem benign… suddenly they could take a very different form.”
I ask Carlo if she’s planning to take the vaccine herself, stressing that she is under no obligation to answer. She doesn’t hesitate: “We’ve become very comfortable talking about this in a public sphere and there are good reasons for that. But as a privacy advocate, I have to think about the risks of revealing that.”
Carlo emphasises that this has nothing to do with the anti-vax movement, and that “medical privacy shouldn’t be confused for anti-vaccination”. But for her, there is something disturbing about the “casualness” with which people now discuss their intimate health choices. She worries this will become a proxy for questions long deemed inappropriate – around religious views, health conditions, pregnancy plans – to become acceptable.
And while she says it would be “the easiest thing in the world” for her to make her vaccine plans public, she refuses to perpetuate that trend. “It’s important this doesn’t become a purity test.”
According to Carlo, this is a test we are all about to face. While BBW will continue to lobby against any form of ID scheme and is preparing to launch legal challenges, she doubts this will be sufficient.
“If all fails, it gets to a point where as individuals, you have to make choices about whether you’re going to comply with some of the rules or not,” she warns. “That’s quite a serious thing to start thinking about, especially if you believe in the rule of law. But everyone also has moral red lines as well…
“The easy thing would be to just go along with it. But I don’t think that would be the right thing to do.”