The State of Surveillance

The UK is about to wield unprecedented surveillance powers. So runs the headline of a Verge article detailing the new Investigatory Powers Bill that was recently passed in the British parliament and is awaiting royal assent. A short summary of the bill’s salient features:

The bill will legalize the UK’s global surveillance program, which scoops up communications data from around the world, but it will also introduce new domestic powers, including a government database that stores the web history of every citizen in the country. UK spies will be empowered to hack individuals, internet infrastructure, and even whole towns — if the government deems it necessary.

“Unprecedented” is a misleading term, indicating some sort of discontinuity from the past. In fact, the GCHQ – Britain’s counterpart to America’s NSA – was already the most invasive surveillance agency in the world, even more so than its American counterpart. This Bill essentially brings under the ambit of the law some things that British intelligence had already been undertaking, albeit “illegally”, and some new measures such as warrantless searches of citizens’ web history and smartphone use. In the final analysis, the point of the Bill is to enshrine into law an expansive surveillance apparatus that people can’t even wring their hands over in the rare occasions when news of illegal state-sponsored breach of privacy makes it to the front pages.

Further down the article is this:

It’s said that if it needs to hack every phone and laptop in a “major town” to stop a terrorist attack, it will; and it’s suggested that it might be used to take over the entire internal email system of a “hypothetical totalitarian state,” if it’s developing biological weapons.

“A hypothetical totalitarian state”. If the irony in this statement isn’t self-evident, let me quote the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary’s definition of totalitarianism:

Definition of totalitarian

  1. 1a :  of or relating to centralized control by an autocratic leader or hierarchy :  authoritarian, dictatorial; especially :  despotic

    b :  of or relating to a political regime based on subordination of the individual to the state and strict control of all aspects of the life and productive capacity of the nation especially by coercive measures (as censorship and terrorism)

  2. 2a :  advocating or characteristic of totalitarianism

    b :  completely regulated by the state especially as an aid to national mobilization in an emergency

    c :  exercising autocratic powers

Given that the law will now legalize the “bulk collection of communication data from around the world” – formerly adjudged a violation of human rights by UK courts under the European Convention of Human Rights – there is little doubt that an omniscient, unaccountable and humans-right-breaching surveillance apparatus constitutes a “coercive measure” to prop a regime based on “subordination of the individual”. The centralized search engine that can be used to go through the most recent year of citizens’ web history – including app use and smartphone usage – doesn’t require a warrant and is exclusively the domain of the police and “specially trained supervising officer” (emphasis mine). This means no recourse to judicial oversight or legal redress for those who are not quite comfortable with faceless authorities digging through their web history. The Verge sees this as establishing  “a dangerous new norm, where surveillance of all citizens’ online activity is seen as the baseline for a peaceful society.”

Edward Snowden calls this legislation “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy”. I think it is time to jettison the notion that such a measure is somehow anachronistic to or incompatible with the nature of modern western “democracy”. The very comfortable meshing of an unaccountable, centralized surveillance apparatus and western-style liberal democracy would suggest that this is more a symbiotic relationship than an uneasy expeditious and tenuous partnership. This notion is reinforced by the little – if any – mass resistance to the whole idea of such surveillance. Many find it abhorrent and have turned to individual protection via encryption and VPNs, but few have questioned the idea itself. Victor Hugo’s famous saying about the futility of resisting an idea whose time has come is thus flipped on its head: mass surveillance’s time has come, for no one has deigned to resist it. A simple proof of this thesis can be found by asking the question: what did the Edward Snowden revelations do in changing the nature of mass surveillance in the world? Apart from creating, and in some way normalizing, the idea of state-sponsored privacy invasion in the public consciousness – nothing.

The two dominant themes that emerge from this discussion of the Investigatory Powers Bill are first, the ongoing abrogation of civil liberties, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression in the developed democracies and second, the increasing ease with which information – financial and personal – can be obtained from vast swathes of unsuspecting people. While the centralized search engine will make surveillance “a simple, routine activity”, in the past supervisory legislation was apparently just ignored if it posed “considerable… inconvenience”. Both these trends reminded me of the following passage from Lenin’s State and Revolution:

If we look more closely into the mechanism of capitalist democracy, everywhere, both in the “petty” – so-called petty – details of the suffrage (residential qualification, exclusion of women etc.), and in the technique of representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “beggars”!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc. – on all sides we see restriction after restriction upon democracy.*

At the same time, Lenin did not advocate shunning parliamentary democracy, for he acknowledged it as the most superior form of political organization possible under a capitalist mode of production. What he did advocate was a political takeover of the state by the common people, who would eventually dismantle the institutional instruments of their subordination but in the interim take over the functions of the bureaucratic apparatus in order to ensure the new regime’s survival and transition to a higher form of government. As a corollary, it follows that a state being operated by the people, in their own interest, would have no cause to spy on or subordinate the masses*.

While personal measures like encryption and VPN are useful, they constitute capitulation to the zeitgeist of state surveillance, not resistance to it. They are not available to the less technically literate like the elderly and just normal people in general. They further impose an unnecessary economic cost on Internet use (you should be wary of the robustness of free encryption) and create an industry in “privacy solutions” – from smartphones to software – that further normalizes and entrenches the paradigm. Most importantly, they reinforce a disastrously rampant individualization that only atomizes people further and reduces the possibilities of horizontal, mass resistance to things many of us are uncomfortable with and, if given a choice, would not consent to. We must also eschew any illusions of the good intentions of the state in spying on us 24x7x365 – a state that in the United States proclaims values of liberty and freedom while simultaneously persecuting whistleblowers like Pvt. Chelsea Manning (rotting in a jail), Thomas Drake (personal and professional life destroyed), Edward Snowden (in exile in Russia) etc.*thus explicitly disincentivizing acts of great courage and struggle against an unjust and invasive paradigm. If sounds like totalitarianism, walks like totalitarianism …

*Even apart from the restrictions that mass surveillance entails, the other factors mentioned are being borne out right now, with the US government response to the Dakota Access Pipeline Protestors, the disenfranchisement of millions of American minority and working class voters and metal spikes placed in London grounds to ward of homeless people to name a few.

*Insert “gee-wonder-how-the-USSR-turned-out” rebuttals here.

*there are many many more, but these are off the top of my head.


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