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Big Brother Is Watching — Should You Care?

Britain now wants to store everyone's calls, texts, emails, and sites visited. Is this conservative or liberal? Freedom or tyranny?

by
Mike McNally

Bio

November 24, 2009 - 12:39 am

Not long ago, the mere suggestion that the government might be snooping on its citizens was enough to make certain deeply paranoid individuals in the U.S. scuttle around their basements in a panic, checking that the straps of their tinfoil hats were securely fastened and listening nervously for the distant hum of approaching black helicopters. And that was just the mainstream media.

Constitutional lawyers and civil liberties campaigners have also been greatly exercised over the subject, along with those conspiracy theorists deemed too unstable even to hold down a job at the New York Times. These latter groups, though, are reasonably consistent when it comes to expressing concern over the government spying on its citizens.

The media on the other hand, seems to have largely lost interest in the subject.

One reason for this newfound ambivalence is that since a federal appeals court ruled in January that national security trumps privacy where international phone calls and emails are intercepted on U.S. soil, the government and intelligence community no longer appear to have a case to answer in that area. Another reason is that the NSA’s alleged secret program to collect and store records of the phone calls and emails of ordinary Americans, regardless of any overseas link, was reportedly abandoned in 2004.

But the most compelling explanation for the media’s declining interest in government spies is that their concern always had more to do with the political affiliation of those doing the spying than with any high-minded concerns for Americans’ privacy. And a year ago, the issue stopped being a stick with which they could beat the Bush administration. Of course, there is also the embarrassing fact that President Obama, he of the ever-shifting principles and promises that come with expiration dates, is retaining much of the intelligence-gathering apparatus his predecessor put in place.

While revelations about government eavesdropping and data-mining operations are no longer headline news in the U.S., in Britain the debate is just getting started. Gordon Brown’s government is pressing ahead with plans to store the phone calls, text messages, and emails of every citizen for a year, along with details of every website visited.

The information will be made available to public bodies including the police, local councils, and financial regulators. The government insists the proposal — known as the Intercept Modernisation Programme — is vital for enabling the police and security services to combat crime and terrorism in a rapidly changing communications environment. It has sparked predictable outrage from civil liberties groups and opposition MPs, who say it amounts to government spying on citizens.

Similar concerns are being raised in Britain over the government’s plans to keep, for up to six years, the DNA profiles of individuals arrested by the police but not convicted of any crime. Ministers and the police argue that retained DNA evidence has been crucial in solving rapes and other crimes years after they were committed, but opponents say the practice infringes civil liberties and is vulnerable to mistakes or abuse.

Campaigners are also fond of trotting out the statistic that Britain has the highest number of closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras in the world, and the proliferation of threats to privacy has British civil liberties campaigners at their wit’s end. Shami Chakrabarti, head of Liberty (the British equivalent of the ACLU) and someone not given to understatement, claims: “We have lived under one of the most authoritarian ages in living memory.”

A common thread runs through the debates over government snooping, DNA profiling, and CCTV surveillance: How can we reconcile individual freedoms with national security and public safety? It’s an area where political distinctions become blurred on both the left and the right.

The left’s desire for the government to take increasing control over the lives of citizens is hard to fathom when set against its often casual disregard for the law. Leftists regard many acts of criminality — throwing a chair through the window of Starbucks, hurling rocks at police officers, disrupting airports in the name of environmental activism, or hacking into government computer systems — as legitimate acts of protest. And when they aren’t actually breaking the law themselves, they’re busy agitating on behalf of everyone from muggers to terrorists, their misplaced concerns born of the Marxist notion that the world is divided into victims and oppressors.

Conservatives are also split on matters of liberty versus security, but while the inconsistency on the left is a result of the profound intellectual and moral confusion that defines “progressives,” the tension on the right is the result of two laudable but sometimes conflicting aspects of conservative thought. The libertarian impulse comes into conflict with the desire for law and order. There are good arguments on both sides, and it’s hard to reconcile them. It boils down to the popular mistrust of authority versus the principle that the innocent have nothing to fear.

There are good practical arguments against the government storing information and spying on people. In the UK there have been several instances of the government losing personal data on millions of people, while opponents of CCTV cameras claim they’re simply not effective in reducing crime. And as the Fort Hood terror attack shows, there’s little point in a government spying on its citizens if for reasons of politics or political correctness it’s not prepared to act when it obtains incriminating information.

The arguments pertaining to invasions of privacy tend to be more abstract. Take this lovingly crafted boilerplate from the Open Rights Group: “Mass surveillance undermines human dignity, which is the value that underpins every other human right.” (Note the photo on ORG’s home page, which features two elderly hippy-like gentlemen who appear to have walked straight out of an episode of The Lone Gunmen.) Then there’s the steady stream of reports and — in the UK at least — news stories in which campaigners and dissenting politicians claim that democracy is being undermined and that (insert the name of your country here) is turning into an “Orwellian” surveillance state.

Missing, however, from all the righteously indignant and supremely principled arguments against surveillance and data collection are examples of individuals who have actually suffered as a result of these policies. Leaving aside the distinct and special case of terror suspects, it is difficult to find examples of ordinary citizens who have experienced even minor inconvenience as a result of official intrusion into their lives. Presumably, if there were such cases then the media and privacy groups would be shouting about them from the rooftops.

The issue of privacy is a bit like the conundrum of the tree falling in the woods: If someone is watching you, but you don’t know you’re being watched, and the person who’s watching you takes no action against you, has your privacy been invaded? Anti-surveillance campaigners would say yes. Personally, I don’t mind if the government reads my emails and follows me with CCTV cameras all day. They’ll soon get bored.

It’s a similar situation with DNA samples. If the government has your DNA, then you don’t really have much to worry about unless you’re thinking of committing a crime. The technology is improving all the time, and the odds of mistakes being made are increasingly remote. The civil liberties argument against DNA retention almost seems to be that a person will lose the “right” to decide whether or not they’d like to commit a crime at some point in the future, because they won’t have a sporting chance of getting away with it. Try telling that to the 245 convicted criminals who have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the U.S. alone.

Governments have always liked to know what their citizens are up to, whether for political gain or for reasons of security. Advances in technology have given the authorities new tools with which to pry, and people can disagree on whether this is a sinister trend or contributes to the greater public good. But until opponents start putting forward concrete arguments, instead of theoretical ones, they’ll have to accept that the general public isn’t going to embrace calls for a mass revolt against Big Brother. (You’d think that if the government really had that much power, it might be able to do something to curtail the activities of those who complain that the government has too much power.)

The fact is that we can never be sure exactly what our governments are up to. Should we sleep more soundly in our beds knowing the government is keeping an eye on those who would do us harm, or should we be worried that the innocent will be swept up along with the guilty? Ultimately, it probably comes down to whether or not you trust your leaders.

Oh — think carefully before you comment on this article. You never know who might be watching.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.
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