Does increased surveillance equal increased security?

The Extreme Surveillance Law was recently passed with little fanfare. Source: Jonathan McIntosh via Flickr

By Anna Dutton

On Thursday, an Extreme Surveillance Law was passed that has granted the police and secret services exclusive access to information held on any device. The law has not yet received royal assent, but is likely to go ahead with little opposition from inside or outside the House of Commons.

The passing of this law will mean that the government will gain access to the public and private lives of many people living in the UK, even if they are not accused of any wrongdoing. The law has little limitations and appears more autocratic than democratic.

As a result of events in France, Brussels and the Middle East, terrorist threats toward the UK have increased, prompting the secret services to push forward the law’s introduction. They argue it would be helpful in preventing would-be terrorist attacks, but, despite the appeal of this argument, the law invokes a serious intrusion of privacy as anyone’s data can be accessed.

Thus, by implementing this law, an atmosphere of scepticism arises; one view is that this would be useful to track the movements of possible terrorists or even criminals, helping the prevention of a range of crimes. But, equally, if the data collected were to be entrusted to the wrong person or to be hacked into, a lot of personal information would be at risk, causing psychological distress on the part of the people whose data was stolen.

Therefore, for this system to be a success, a series of data protection precautions and defences would need to be put in place. This in itself is costly and once again does not ensure complete security as being hacked is always a possibility; even where government systems are concerned.

A benefit of this legislation is that it gives a clear method for the legal hacking of personal computers or mobile phones. This provides an element of transparency often neglected by policies of this kind. However, it again re-iterates how any device can be accessed, even if the person has done nothing wrong. Jim Killock, the executive director of Open Rights Group said ‘the UK now has a surveillance law that is more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy,’ a provocative statement, but one echoed by the fact that no other Western country has implemented this law.

Germany and America do have similar systems in place, but not to the scale of this new law. With Trump elected as president there is speculation that some of the American privacy laws may even be lessened. As hinted on his campaign trail, Trump would rather use this system against political opponents than the general public.

The outcome of this law is unlikely to affect our day-to-day lives because the context in question relies on data that is unseen. However, the fact that the system allows for access to any files (whether public or private) suggests that nothing is completely ‘safe’ from intrusion. The fact that everything can be monitored may deter some people from posting particularly provocative things online, but is unlikely to affect a person’s daily use of their computer or mobile phone as most things posted are harmless.

For those who have nothing to hide (the vast majority of people) this ruling is unlikely to be of much concern, but for those caught up in illegal or criminal acts, it may serve as a rude awakening. The hope would be that by increasing surveillance of data, crime rates would decrease, but this is impossible to tell at such an early stage of the law’s implementation.

It is interesting to note however the little opposition this law received in parliament. There are many reasons for this: perhaps the current political climate; a divided Labour Party and Conservative party distracted by the recent Brexit vote may have meant this legislation was less of a priority. Furthermore, with global concerns of terrorism and public fears increasing, the law may have been welcomed as a way of deterring future terrorists from attacking Britain. Also, perhaps the main reason is because the political agenda of Mrs May is presently occupied with the fallout of the Brexit result; our relations with Europe, new trading agreements and when to trigger Article 50 have all taken precedence.

There has been some protest from privacy groups wishing to challenge the legislation in the European Court of Human Rights and elsewhere, but this is unlikely to amount to much as the legislation has already been passed.

By introducing this law, it seems the government have now got even more eyes in the back of their head. If used appropriately and protected securely, the ability to access people’s data could be seen as a step toward greater security. However, the ethics associated with it and the lack of limitations suggests that the distinction between security and an intrusion of privacy have become a lot more blurred.

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