A new data surveillance plan for the UK was outlined in the Queen's speech earlier this month. This legislation updates the legal powers available to intelligence agencies and the police with regard to email, telephone and social media communications. The authorities stress that they will not be allowed to access the actual content of emails or text messages without a warrant. They further assure the public that strict safeguards will be put in place to protect privacy, and that this law is essential to keep the public safe(TM).
Well, that's OK, then.
Things like this just grow and grow, with ever more information required with various justifications, such as the need to combat terrorism. To see how large these things can grow, we need look no further than the land of the free itself. The Washington Post ran a series called 'Top Secret America' back in 2010. I would link to it directly for you, but...I kid you not...my computer, in true X-Files fashion, kept shutting down every time I tried to access the page directly. The next best thing is an article here (which does link to the original article) by the always excellent Glenn Greenwald on the findings of the series. Salient points about the National Security Agency's surveillance program are made. Here is one:
Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.
Then we have William Binney, an NSA whistleblower who granted an interview to Democracy Now in April this year, saying that the NSA has 20 trillion 'transactions' of US citizens with other US citizens.
The irony is, the more information in multiple languages and formats the intelligence agencies have, the less safe 'we' are, simply because the volume of utterly irrelevant information is so large. Let us not forget that the intelligence agencies actually had the data predicting the 9/11 attacks, but they failed to put it all together. Just having the data is not enough; an ability to meaningfully interpret it is critical. And having trillions of messages on government databases containing mindless noise like 'LOL' and 'ROTFLMAO' can only make the job of meaningful intelligence gathering even harder. According to the Washington Post Top Secret America series, huge amounts of data are routinely ignored. How does this 'keep us safe'?
So we have two databases, one about to grow, one already monstrously bloated, containing data on everyone. But it doesn't matter, right? So what if they have this information? After all, if you've done nothing wrong, you've nothing to fear, right?
The next time someone says that to you, find the nearest fork and stick it in his or her eye. It is the single most idiotic phrase ever uttered, a statement of utter ignorance, and the core philosophy of the mindless authoritarian.
And here is why. First, this page gives a nice introduction to what can go wrong, and then, if you need more proof, on this site, which was last updated in 2009 but is more relevant now than ever, we can see a very long list of abuses that occur when completely innocent people have their data kept unnecessarily on a database. Some examples are as follows:
The Daily Telegraph reports that "a battered wife’s confidential address details were twice passed to her ex-husband by his girlfriend while she was working in a government tax office. Mother-of-two Donna-Lee Camacho, 28, lived in fear while her former spouse – who cannot be named for legal reasons – tracked her down. One of the addresses Sarah Gillett, 33, passed on to him was for a women’s refuge where Miss Camacho and her sons, aged four and 11, were trying to rebuild their lives. She was able to access the information because she worked for the Child Tax Credit department. Gillett was jailed for 18 weeks at Preston Magistrates Court, Lancs, after pleading guilty to a charge of wrongful disclosure of HM Revenue and Customs information."
The Telegraph reports that “young women fleeing forced marriages are being betrayed by GPs and benefits staff who “collude” with families to return them against their will, a senior police officer police has revealed. Doctors and Job Centre workers are breaching confidentiality rules and passing on vital information to families, allowing them to trace and punish Asian women who are attempting to escape coerced marriages and “honour”-based domestic violence.”
The Sun reports that “A ruthless rapist found victims by getting a job as a care worker and trawling a council’s database for vulnerable young girls. Simeon Kellman, 43, used computer records to identify teenagers who had just come out of the foster care system. Then he forced his way into their homes and attacked them. Kellman has just been jailed for eight years for the vicious rape of an 18-year-old, who was blindfolded and bound.” The Met police say “Further investigations revealed that Kellman had accessed information concerning the woman on the council database more than 30 times.”
The Guardian reports that "Investigations by [ICO] staff and police had uncovered 'evidence of a pervasive and widespread ‘industry’ devoted to the illegal buying and selling of [personal] information.'"
The Guardian reports that “The Home Office has been forced to apologise to 10 men placed under controversial anti-terrorist control orders after it linked them to the ricin plot in London, the Guardian has discovered. In an embarrassing letter to the men, the government claims that it made a “clerical error” when it said the grounds for emergency restriction imposed on each of the alleged international terrorists was that they “belonged to and have provided support for a network of north African extremists directly involved in terrorist planning in the UK, including the use of toxic chemicals”.”
Sources for all stories can be found on the site (linked above).
These are but a tiny few of the examples given, and that is only one site which stopped updating in 2009. There are plenty of other cases out there showing what happens when totally unnecessary private details of ordinary people get into the wrong hands. Bear in mind that all this data was supposed to have the 'strictest safeguards', too.
There are those who will now say that these horrors are a price worth paying for the safety of the society as a whole (now reach for another fork and target the other eye), but as we have already said, just having information is not enough, and the more information kept, the more likely those tiny nuggets of useful information will be missed or ignored. To crown it all, only the dumbest terrorists in the world would openly discuss their plans in any kind of electronic communications as they know full well that anything they write or say on the phone or online could be used against them or would jeopardize the operation.
Here's the rub: the authorities themselves know full well that even blanket coverage of all communications will never guarantee safety, so we have to ask ourselves: what is the real purpose of such a system?
The answer should be plain to anyone who has been paying attention. We have a small elite group of people in charge of all strategically vital institutions: the IMF, the World Bank, NATO, powerful nation states, and so on. These people do not fear terrorism; indeed, terrorism is their justification for asserting more control of that which they really fear: you. Blanket coverage of all electronic communications will not stop terrorism, but it will enable the authorities to easily identify, target and deal with dissidents: investigative journalists and bloggers out from under the editorial control of the corporate-owned mainstream media, political or human rights activists, independent media organizations, protest groups, and so on.
Our privacy is the last defense we have against state power and exploitation by the authorities. Without it, we are completely at the mercy of what may be an abusive government. And for those who believe this is all a flap about nothing and that governments are essentially benign, please read a little history and then come back to me.
As we have seen from the treatment of alleged whistle blowers like Bradley Manning and transparency organizations like Wikileaks, those in charge are willing to pull out all the stops to make an example of them, hoping that it will serve as a deterrent to other potential troublemakers. This belligerence toward anyone who steps outside the permitted orthodoxy of media dialogue will also only continue to grow unless we do something about it now.
The only way to do something about it is to take back control of our societies through a grassroots movement of direct democracy. My free book (see postscript below) will tell you all about it.
'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy’ by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog.