"We have succumbed to some very weak arguments"

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April 17, 2012
The British government is considering new Internet surveillance laws, which would allow investigation authorities to monitor users’ email traffic, visited websites, phone calls and text messages in real time and without court authorization. Civil rights activists fear a far-reaching intrusion into the privacy of British citizens. Heinrich Böll Foundation has talked to Nick Pickles, director of the privacy and civil liberties organisation Big Brother Watch, about the proposal.

Heinrich Böll Foundation: The British government wants to extent the state’s access to the telecommunication data of every citizen. Which measures are planned?

Nick Pickles: It is proposed that – like phone calls now – the use of the internet will be logged so authorities can request to see who, when and how you have been communicating with someone. We believe the proposals will also include some ‘black box’ devices being installed onto networks to give the authorities the ability to monitor in real-time.

What are the government’s intentions? What reasons are stated?

It is argued these powers are needed to prevent terrorists communicating anonymously online, but it is far from clear if the proposals are technically feasible, particularly where communications are encrypted.

In your opinion, what are the true reasons?

There will always be those who believe the state should know everything and citizens are permitted rights, like privacy or free speech, because the state grants them. Equally there will always be a temptation to use technology as a quick-fix to complex, human problems and this is another example of that.

The idea for the law is not entirely new. There have already been attempts for such a legislative initiative.

Similar plans were proposed by the last Labour Government, but they were dropped due to civil liberties, cost and feasibility concerns.

Liberal parties are traditionally critical of monitoring and surveillance tools. Why do the Liberal Democrats support the law?

The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives both pledged to roll back the surveillance state, so it’s important that when the detail of these plans is unveiled they are held to their word. Our concern is that this will involve capturing a huge amount of data on innocent people’s behavior, while not addressing the real risks to public safety.

Who are the critics of the law? What are their concerns / fears?

There are a huge number of people questioning the wisdom of these plans – and how they will impact businesses, privacy and the way people use the internet. Politicians in all the major parties, civil liberties groups and technical organisations are all concerned about the plans, which would be unprecedented in a western democracy. Our broader fear is that there are some in the UK who want to be able to control what people can see and do online – the first part of delivering that would be to monitor activity in real time, which is what is currently being proposed.

Are there any initiatives or actions by the civil society to prevent the law?

There are already a number of petitions running online, and this Thursday a conference will be held to bring together the key issues and talk to supporters. Big Brother Watch is one of a group of NGOs coordinating the campaign and we are talking to parliamentarians about our concerns privately and in public.  

The privacy of British citizens has increasingly been restricted during the past years. The comprehensive video surveillance in city centers is just one example. Why is Great Britain at the forefront in Europe when it comes to the monitoring of its own citizens?

I get asked this often, and I just don’t know. I think we have succumbed to some very weak arguments about the way that new technology can solve complex human problems. Also as a country we’ve never overthrown an oppressive government in a traditional sort of ‘revolution’ so perhaps it’s a cultural problem that we tend to trust our Governments. One of the arguments Big Brother Watch has been making is that the question shouldn’t just be what this Government will do with more powers and surveillance, but also what future Governments might use them for.

In August 2011 there were violent riots in several British cities, including London. Has the law something to do with these incidents?

It has been mentioned briefly, but in reality the causes and escalation of the riots had little to do with knowing who was communicating with who – there have been riots before and mobile phones have not changed the reasons they happen, which are fundamentally social ones.

Will the UK soon be ruled by laws that usually characterize authoritarian states?

I hope not! There is a serious point about privacy and freedom of speech in a democracy, and the way that some states use surveillance not only as a tool to monitor citizens but as a means of controlling them. Yes, changing technology does prevent new security challenges but it should not mean we abandon the principles upon which our society is founded. Otherwise you begin an argument that means the only way we can be ‘secure’ in an absolute sense is for the state to be authoritarian.

Interview by Mirja Brücker