Why we need to worry more about surveillance

Amy Provan 21 November 2013

Last week’s revelations about a police officer attempting to recruit an activist as an
informant in order to spy on
legitimate Cambridge student groups show that we need to worry more about unwarranted surveillance.
Defenders of what the recording reveals have argued that means justify ends, claiming that the intelligence being gathered would aid in the prevention of crime and must be accepted as necessary. Yet one imagines a polite request to the groups involved, explaining the need to preserve law and order,
would elicit an enthusiastic response to provide freely most of the intelligence that is wanted. Why, rather than attempting to liaise with these groups, have police turned to what has always been the most unreliable means of intelligence gathering?
What is perhaps even more
questionable than this is the use of taxpayers’ money in order to
fund what is clearly unnecessary and
morally dubious spying into legitimate organisations. Cambridge Defends Education and CUSU are not threats to national security, and to suggest they are shows a police force that is not simply overreaching, but is ultimately entirely incompetent.  
This problem is far from limited to our local police force. Following releases by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Sunday Times reported that the first step towards this, “the unprecedented public appearance” of the heads of the security services on November 7th, had been “labelled a ‘total pantomime’ after it emerged that … [a] private deal was struck with the heads’”
to inform them of the questions beforehand. Again, an obsession with control proves incompatible with even a simple democratic process.
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, notes that “after attempts to discredit the family of Stephen Lawrence and undercover officers fathering children with activists, this episode makes clear why the police should not be able
to approve their own undercover surveillance operations. Judicial oversight is essential.”
The cowardice of those who react to coercive force with consent is contemptible, but resistance to it requires a resolution that cannot reasonably be expected of just anyone. Despite a media culture that engages in the crassest attacks on whistleblowers, that this Cambridge-based activist has come forward
to reveal the efforts taken to recruit him as an informant is a courageous and valuable democratic act.
We are far from living in a totalitarian state. Innocence is presumed, government is elected, speech is (generally) free. But attempts to invade the privacy of those who are engaged in political actions that are wholly commensurate with the principles fundamental to a democracy is unjust. We cannot allow “national security” to be used as an excuse to confiscate what it is that we want to keep secure.