Surveillance in a democratic society

Despite the initial belief by some that it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke, it has become clear that government proposals to monitor email and social networking are very real:

Ministers are to introduce a new law allowing police and security services to extend their monitoring of the public’s email and social media communications, the Home Office has confirmed.

It is expected that the new system will allow security officials to scrutinise who is talking to whom and exactly when the conversations are taking place, but not the content of messages.

Yet another attempt to strengthen the surveillance state within the UK and weaken hard won civil liberties.  And it is not clear that this legislation is even required to deal with the problem which it claims to resolve. As David Davis MP has pointed out, current legislation is sufficient to deal with any existing need to monitor an individual perceived as a ‘threat’.

And it is not just the fact that the legislation is unnecessary that calls into question government proposals.  As pointed out in the Telegraph today, the plans are ‘practically impossible’. Trefor Davies, Chief Technology Officer at business internet service provider Timico, points out the obvious:

“The problem is that it is too easy to avoid detection on the internet. Proxy services provide anonymity for web users – Google “free proxy server” and you will find 33million results,” said Davies. “A culture of anonymity online means such people could not be targeted for copyright-infringing activities under the Digital Economy Act (eg music downloading) and we would be making it easier for people to go undetected when doing indisputably bad things such as accessing illegal child abuse material. More prosaically, proxy servers are also often the source of malware.”

So illiberal (and where are the Liberal Democrats on this issue?) and ‘practically impossible’.  One wonders why exactly the government are pursuing this policy, particularly when Tory minister in the (very recent) past have been so keen to publicly demonstrate their party’s opposition to state surveillance.

But there is a further issue here.  This government have repeatedly claimed that this is (or will be) the most transparent government in British history.  Transparency is supposedly at the heart of government policy.  Despite this, we have seen increasing attacks on the Freedom of Information Act.  Furthermore, we have witnessed government ministers,such as Michael Gove, challenging a ruling by the ICO that private emails allegedly related to departmental business must be disclosed.

And herein lies the problem.  There are increasing efforts by the state to prevent the electorate from gaining access to information about the workings of government whilst simultaneously attempting to obtain more information from us.  Increasingly it appears that politicians are no longer answerable to us, we are answerable to them.  This claim for more information from us whilst simultaneously wishing to restrict access to information from them is the clearest signal yet of how the power relationship has shifted in recent years.  We should be demanding greater surveillance of the state rather than accepting greater surveillance of us.  Because, in a democratic society, it should be us holding them to account rather than the other way round.