Ever since Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks and The Guardian’s revelations about state surveillance and data gathering were largely greeted with indifference by the public, governments across the globe have continued to find ways to watch and obtain information about their citizens. Yet increasingly it is the actions taken by these governments in response to healthy criticism and protest and the sinister erosion of human rights that should strike a worrying chord in each and every person.
1 of 5 members of staff still missing from a Hong Kong bookshop that sold books critical of the Chinese regime – specifically the current President, Xi Jinping — appeared on state TV admitting to a crime committed 11 years ago. Samar Badawi, the wife of imprisoned human rights campaigner Waleed Abu al-Khair and sister of Raif Badawi (a writer sentenced to 10 years and 1000 lashes), was arrested by Saudi authorities for handling a Twitter account championing the release of her husband, before being interrogated and eventually released. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has this year ruled that employers are entitled to read the private emails of employers during work hours. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, approved laws that allow the government to decide who runs the public TV and radio as well as appoint judges to the constitutional court.
Meanwhile in California the Fresno police department have been using ‘Beware’ — a software program that goes through billions of data points regarding an individual (including any records, database information, web information, and commercial information) — as well as using bespoke measurements of analysis to decide the individual’s potential for committing a crime. The data is scored but mistakes can lead to an inaccurate scoring, increasing the threat level and prompting a more heavily armed police response. Not ideal considering how trigger-happy US cops are, with over 1100 citizens killed last year by police.
In Turkey, 27 scholars were detained by police accused of spreading terrorism propaganda. Their crime? They were among a group of over 1000 academics who had signed a public statement denouncing the “deliberate massacre” of Kurds by Turkish armed forces. An investigation has begun and if a trial finds them guilty, they could face up to five years in prison.
pressing charges against someone without telling them what the charges are whilst not giving their lawyers any of the details to help defend them
There are rules that have been put in place with a barely a hint of acknowledgment from the public. The Justice and Security Act came into law in 2013 and one of its components was the establishment of Closed Materials Procedures (CMP). In criminal and civil court cases, the evidence could be seen by either side but in the case of CMP is never shown to the defendant, essentially pressing charges against someone without telling them what the charges are whilst not giving their lawyers any of the details to help defend them. Between June 2013 and June 2014, the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, made 5 CMP applications covering 11 claimants.
Section 215 of the US Patriot Act allowed the bulk-gathering of data such as phone calls and web history. This focused on foreign activity and as such required a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court judge to grant any order pertaining to surveilling such activity. Over a period of 34 years, 35,434 applications were granted. One of the main problems with this section is that it didn’t require reasons to be given for why the order was granted. While this section has temporarily expired, there is no certainty that it won’t make a return or exist in some other form.
The NSA was accused of spying on Brazil’s biggest oil company, Petrobras and Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff at a time when Brazil were preparing to auction rights to drill some of the largest oil fields found in recent history. There were concerns that the spying gleaned details which would help US companies win some of those bids, possibly amounting to industrial espionage. The NSA and the UK’s GCHQ also allegedly targeted UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s charity.
Even at a basic level, our actions and opinions are curbed and catalogued.
So why should we care? Does this really pose an issue to our everyday lives? The simple answer is yes. Even at a basic level, our actions and opinions are curbed and catalogued. By 2020 in China, every citizen will be enrolled on a national database that essentially scores their trustworthiness. The database takes into account all actions, from law violations to conversations on social media. Products purchased online and political comments that are considered anti-establishment all contribute to a lower credit score.
Are the actions of governments and their spy institutions justified in their actions? Although we are told that we face continuous attacks by extremist groups, between 2004 and 2009, the FBI admits that the powers of the Patriot Act didn’t crack any major terrorist plots. Even Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a key architect of the Patriot Act, criticised the extent to which the NSA used the act to further their activities. The fast-tracked Counter-Terrorism & Security Act here in the UK requires schools, universities and health service providers to monitor the behaviour of students and patients. The risk of exploitation is huge.
One day we are going to find that everything we say online and in public may be held or even used against us. We will be stopped from voicing political opposition to horrendous acts of privatisation and incompetence and downright greed. Yet we continue to allow laws to be passed that limit our freedoms. The Terrorism Act of 2000 enables the government to label any group, domestic or foreign, as extremist and so makes any activity by that group a criminal offence.
Remember that the next time you want to fight the government for concreting over your park, handing your children’s school over to private companies, closing food banks, sanctioning benefits, spending public money on war and privatising the NHS. Remember that when you receive a letter from the police banning you from your basic human right to protest.
Featured image © ‘Mindependence’ Eric Drooker