Channel 4’s ‘escape the surveillance state’ show Hunted started last night, so in the spirit of resistance WeLove Digital looks at the state of surveillance and digital communications in the 21st century.
Governments and big business will tell you that data gathering and storage on everything from buying habits to what you like on Facebook, or even secret intimate details, is necessary to keep you safe. When so much of life is lived through digital communication and invasion of privacy goes so deep, there are no aspects of your life that intelligence gathering agencies cannot use to ‘monitor behaviour’.
Channel 4’s Hunted shows the power of surveillance teams committed to digging into your personal details. Contestants have been given criminal fugitive status and that allows the authorities to examine any of their physical and digital possessions, to raid their homes for evidence. At the state’s disposal are a vast network of CCTV cameras. Britain is the most watched society in the world – Britain’s information commissioner Richard Thomas said as much. In 2006. We are living in an intelligence gatherers experimental wet dream, with one camera for every 11 people.
On top of that are automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras everywhere. Everywhere. I know this: I was pulled over on the M6 by an unmarked police car who used ANPR data showing my car was not registered for tax or insurance (it was, for both, but had not yet shown up on the police ANPR database). I was asked to present at a police station or be fined – the onus of proof was on me and not my accusers, surely the wrong way round, and a worrying sign of how total car surveillance is.
Tiny axe to grind there, but there is no doubting that police data is harnessed to root out dissidents, from uninsured drivers to potential threats to the political status quo. Long histories exist of police special branch infiltration to environmental and other pressure groups. The book Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police by Paul Lewis is an excellent read and an insight into how police authorities act when it comes to ‘dangerous’ thoughts and behaviours, such as climate change protest.
In these times of surveillance legislation over-reach (particularly the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, or RIPA, and the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, DRIP/DRIPA) we see journalists targeted – their call data intercepted, police using RIPA to reveal confidential journalistic sources, and individual reporters or photographers placed on a ‘domestic extremism’ database.
Lawyers too have shown government surveillance of their private correspondence. This excellent update by Jonathan Goldsmith at the Law Gazette outlines the scale of the problem faced in the UK and throughout the EU. Governments find the control that monitoring digital communications and population movements gives them too good to resist, and so enact laws to gather as much as possible. If Edward Snowden’s testimony showed anything it was that these powers have now reached an overwhelming capability and need to be strongly challenged or repealed.
There are ways to protect privacy – encryption for emails, secure connections or file transfers – for anyone that wants confidentiality in their work or private life. Simple measures such as Wired magazine’s advice on how to stop intelligence agencies spying through your computer’s webcam and microphone, are effective in certain situations.
Email encryption advice is available in this excellent summary from Jeremy Barr at the Poynter Institute, backers of the Online News Association for digital journalists. Barr recommends using widely available software such as the Gnu Privacy Guard or Pretty Good Privacy to encrypt, with Susan McGregor of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism commenting: “Encryption technology is like putting your message in an envelope before you send it.” There are tipsheets, guides, advice and case studies on using encryption to help you out.
Then there is this Micah Lee article at The Intercept explaining how Laura Poitras and others kept their communications with Edward Snowden secret. Tools like Secure Drop allow media organisations to securely accept files from whistleblowers whose identity would put them in danger, plus Whisper’s secure text options are endorsed by both Snowden and Poitras.
In modern societies a lot of people seem unconcerned by surveillance, saying that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. That view is easy to challenge, because everyone has private views or information that they keep only to themselves or a select few – salary, sexual orientation or practices, for example. I do not deal with confidential contacts in my everyday life, but I appreciate that others do or might and believe in their right to do so. Surveillance is not targeted at present to criminals or terrorists, as some may have you believe, but instead sees everyone as a potential criminal. Thought crime anyone?
Do we really want to live inside Bentham’s Panopticon – a prison of a society where surveillance is hidden but always there – where people are paranoid and regulate their behaviour, their very thoughts, to avoid sanction? If you value privacy then say so, use encryption online and ask searching questions about rampant surveillance and lack of regulation. Protect yourself and others if you need to, but live without fear.
Footnote: The UK government rewrote hacking laws, meant to protect everyone, to give GCHQ immunity from its own computer and mobile hacking activities. What price good encryption?