Nick Pickles is the director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, an organisation set up to challenge policies that threaten our privacy and civil liberties, and to expose the true scale of the surveillance state.
The Internet has undoubtedly changed life beyond recognition in a relatively tiny fraction of time. Few areas of our lives are untouched by cyberspace and the impact on law enforcement is clearly one area that cannot be ignored.
The danger is that this pace of change, coupled with massive increases in computing power, sees the scale of surveillance increase far beyond what we would recognise as a civil balance between privacy and security. Worse, it leads to a policy response driven by a desire to do something quickly, rather than to manage the long- term consequences of legislation.
For many governmental organisations, the approach to surveillance and investigation offline is being replaced by a belief that more data is implicitly a good thing. Once data has been captured, the temptation – indeed, pressure – going forward will be to maximise the use of the information through increasingly invasive data mining.
However, a more fundamental shift is also taking place – that of governments seeking to use private commercial operations to gather data solely for use by agents of the state.
These issues are at the heart of the Communications Data Bill and pose a fundamental challenge to the future of a digital society, departing from the values that have underpinned democracy for centuries.
While technology may be changing, it should not justify moving further away from the basic principles of a democratic society as a result. We would not ask newsagents to record what newspapers and magazines people buy, nor landlords to record who spoke to who in their premises. Surveillance without suspicion was, and remains, an affront to our right to live our lives in private.
Given the importance of encryption and private networks to ensuring data protection and information security, the tension between legitimate and necessary measures to protect the privacy of communications and the desire of law enforcement could become a hugely damaging spiral.
If the only barrier is the amount of computing power at your disposal, clearly Governments have the potential to use these tools to profile and analyse their populations in ways never before possible. If the promised improvements in security and reduction in crime are not delivered, as has been the case with every law enforcement innovation since the establishment of the police, the likely response will not be a different approach, but an acceleration of intrusion and ever broader types of data being collected.
This is the challenge we face as we seek to build a digital society. If Big Brother Watch’s research has demonstrated anything, it’s that surveillance is a rising tide. Once capability is installed, it is almost unprecedented for it to be removed. This is a key concern in the current debate, namely that once data is collected, changing the purposes for which it can be accessed and the ways it can be used is legislative tinkering, unlikely to attract substantive scrutiny.
John Stewart Mill wrote in On Liberty that “The strongest of all arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place.”
This lesson remains true today, along with those values that built the modern democracies we seek to offer to the world as a beacon of hope for the oppressed and the imprisoned. Future generations demand of us that if we are to grant the state new powers, we bear responsibility of how they are used by those regimes that have not yet assumed power.
While technology may be changing, it should not justify moving further away from the basic principles of a democratic society as a result.