Making sense of our surveillance state

Sam Raby 26 March 2015

Paranoia is incredibly hard to avoid in 2015. Since the terrifying Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year, we’ve been faced with a veritable barrage of technological terrorism, and political big-brother backlash. All the while, the tech in our smartphones tracks the articles we read, the images we see, and who we call in a paranoid panic. So how on earth do we make sense of our state of constant and thorough surveillance? How should we weigh up the pros and cons.

Despite being quick to insist ‘Je suis Charlie’ at the unity marches in Paris following the attacks, at home the Prime Minister had a rather different view of the crisis. One which the classic satrirical publication Private Eye summed up neatly in their front page – ‘Je suis Charlatan’. Cameron has pledged that, should he win the next general election, he will introduce a ‘snoopers’ charter’, allowing security services to spy on the content of our internet communications. The bill would also block apps such as WhatsApp, and Apple’s iMessage and Facetime, since both companies encrypt their data when it comes to these services.

Cameron went on to ask, “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which … we cannot read?” Already, the Bill has received much criticism from the Liberal Democrats and pressure groups. Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch (a pressure group dedicated to defending civil liberties) argued fiercely that it would be “wholly unacceptable” to introduce this policy in the wake of such a tragedy.

Nick Clegg further warned that “[the bill] is not targeted, it is not proportionate, it’s not harmless”, and would mean a “dramatic shift in the relationship between the state and the individual”. The dangers of Cameron’s proposed paternal state do appear to be encroaching on personal freedoms – but are they a necessary evil? Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that both the YouTube and Twitter accounts of the US military had been hacked by a group working under the supposed influence of the Islamic State. CentCom (US Central Command) responded that, although embarrassing, it was just “cyber-vandalism”.

Funnily enough, President Obama was giving a speech on cyber-safety as the attack on CentCom occurred. Clearly in an age where physical and digital terror threats have become very real, there is of course a growing need to implement certain protection measures. But how do you increase security without compromising freedoms? According to a list complied by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, we have the most transparent government in the world – but we also do the most spying. The surveillance state is undoubtedly growing, whether we like it or not – and how much the thought hikes up the blood pressure levels, may very well critically depend on how well we can ignore it.