May’s New Mass Surveillance Bill and the Stasi
Theresa May announced a new mass surveillance bill in the British parliament this week, giving new powers to police and security services. Edward Snowden criticised the bill, and discussions online also reveal discontent among UK netizens. This mass surveillance bill could be compared to the operations of the former Stasi of East Germany. Its allusion to George Orwell’s 1984 is alarming as well.
Twenty-six years after 1989, we are back to secrecy and spying in such an upfront manner. It is rather confounding that people blandly accept this sort of intrusion into their personal lives. Seeing as most of the population over age 35 witnessed the revelation of Stasi surveillance activity, there ought to be more backlash. Of course, today the state need not rely upon informants, as East Germany did: computers do just as well. In East Germany, there were 120,000 agents working for the Stasi, surveilling 17 million. Today, a population triple that size can be tracked computationally.
The surveillance bill collects “Internet connection records”, says May in her speech. It is a “record of communication services”, although it does not record every website a person has ever accessed. It “only shows that they have accessed to that [particular] site”. These two phrases, both from May’s speech, are contradictory. It is impossible to not keep a record of a website whilst keeping a record of it. Furthermore, in what might be seen as pandering to a cohort of eighty-year-olds, it is referred to as an “itemised phone bill”.
It is disconcerting that politicians are pushing UK policies in the direction of mass surveillance. What’s worse is that the same thing is happening in the United States. These changes in policy show just how quickly our societies forget.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, the data on individual East Germans became accessible. Information ranged from the brand of toothpaste they preferred to whether or not they had thought about defecting to the West.
This new bill allows monitors to glean this type of information as well. For example, continuous visits to amazon.co.uk or other retail websites could perhaps reveal a secret shopping addiction or the hatching of a terrorist plot. Or, if an individual kept bank accounts in several countries, this might be construed as ‘suspicious’ behaviour. Why should such information be readily available in the hands of police and security services?
May’s calling the new bill an “itemised phone bill” is an Orwellianism. It is a piece of mass surveillance, as Edward Snowden tweeted, without accountability. Indeed, prosecutors may begin to circumvent the jury as a result, if they need access to this data for an investigation.
Even if the record only included the domain name, it would not be difficult to track activity on particular websites. It would be simple to uncover the information that May claims the bill does not collect, by tracking mental health or news websites. Why are “mental health” and “news websites” considered harmless? We ought to question the authority of those defining those boundaries.
Some may argue that this bill will have little impact on them because they have nothing to hide. Culpability, however, is besides the point. No governmental institution should have access to an individual’s browsing habits or browser history. Only when an investigation is being done should investigators be authorised to collect this information. The bill seems to circumvent the authorisation process, as the information is already available. Is that necessary? Why aren’t people questioning this bill? Does the government need to know your brand of toothpaste or level of discontent? This single bill may be the first of many surveillance bills in the next few years. We might end up with a Stasi-like data centre controlling us because we are afraid of “terror”. Moreover, it could lead to incriminating individuals before they even commit crimes.
Those who passed the bill in parliament and we who fail to question it have clearly learnt nothing from history. None of us have any conception of what it is like to live in a surveillance-filled country. East Germans, especially those persecuted by the Stasi, have learnt from firsthand experience. Will anybody listen to them?