Security With Surveillance

Are you safer with snoopers?

The overall treatment that government surveillance receives from the media is often excitable and overhyped. The Investigatory Powers Bill, for instance, has been a victim of this fairly false portrayal.

The new bill would require internet service providers (ISPs) to provide essentially the browsing history of all UK citizens. It must be emphasised, though, that the content of the websites one visits will not be collected. Only the web addresses, which can be found near the top of the screen on almost any web browser, will be collected.

It could be argued then that limited metadata may not reveal much about one’s internet activity. Although, collecting a range of websites which a user may visit over time can be combined to create a revealing digital profile, of which the government could use to identify ones’ habits, areas of interests, and even their possible future intentions.

What exactly, though, are the problems with the government collecting such metadata if any? One claim is that the government could use the metadata, and what it may convey about an individual, against the very user it originated from, as part of an aggressive policy to stamp out anybody who may oppose those politicians in power. Such claims are perhaps more applicable to places like China, where the government does heavily monitor all of its internet traffic and censors anything that challenges the state.

Contrastingly, the UK and US, and many other western democracies, do not feature such oppression, at least to that extent. Surveillance by the NSA needs approval from a court of qualified judges before it can commence, and this permission needs to be renewed every 90 days. Equally, in the UK, the Investigatory Powers Bill requires law enforcement and security agencies to seek the approval of a senior judge before accessing the bulk collection of internet metadata, unlike previous systems in which applications which were assessed by the Home Secretary. These legitimate and stringent processes limit any abuses of power and ensure that such surveillance and use of the collected data in criminal or terrorist investigations comply with the law and the fundamental rights of citizens.

Another important point to recognise is that the electronic espionage conducted by the NSA likely reflects the agendas of governments in other countries around the globe. Any well-funded nation-state is likely to invest in programs for the purposes of gathering intelligence in the name of national security.

Even so, all these arguments in favour of mass surveillance for many privacy advocates, civil rights lawyers, and even some cybersecurity experts, are not enough. American citizens, too, have shown to have shared the same disapproval; in a poll conducted by Pew Research Centre, more people opposed the government’s surveillance activities in January of 2014 compared with June of 2013 when opinion was more evenly split (see Figure 1). And thus, there is, of course, the other side of the argument, one which favours greater privacy in the digital age over mass government surveillance.

NEXT | Paper to Pixels

How the digital age has changed the meaning of privacy

BACK | Guesswork is Not Good Enough

The true effectiveness of mass surveillance is hard to determine without evidence