Posted on December 7, 2016
The UK government recently passed the most aggressive surveillance law in history. Like the Patriot Act a decade ago, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 sets a new standard for what information governments can access from their citizens in the name of public safety. According to Edward Snowden, it’s ‘the most extreme surveillance in the history of Western democracy’. Whether it is introducing new powers or legalizing what has been going on in secret for years, the UN Privacy Chief said passing the bill is ‘worse than a scary shift’ — ‘privacy’ as we know it will never be the same and because most of the bill has to do with the Internet, neither will surveillance.
Comparisons to China and Russia are not far off, and referring to the act as unprecedented is not an understatement. Right now, there is no country with as much surveillance capabilities as Great Britain. The bill covers users’ Internet history, smartphone apps, and meta data from calls. It forces service providers to store which websites users visit, for how long, and at what time, for at least a year. For the first time ever, government bodies are legally sanctioned to hack private citizen’s computers and phones and the same law requires technology providers to assist them in doing so. The bill increases the number of agencies with access to this information and reduces the number of safeguards that ensure they have a good reason to have that access in the first place.
For privacy activists in the UK, the lack of initial opposition to the bill and the fact that this is just another step in the slow erosion of privacy is probably scarier than the bill itself. The legislation consolidated changes to how we think about privacy that have been going on since social media and digital communication became part of daily life. It’s not that people necessarily agree with the changes, they’ve just accepted them as inevitable. Not inevitable like gravity, ice cream melting in the sun, or John Gibbons countering lefty hitters with left handed relievers — it’s become a trade off or necessary evil in exchange for something more valuable. The digital world, with integrated feeds, accounts, and profiles catered to our individual personalities, is built on third parties — governments or agencies — accessing our personal data.
Think about everything your phone does. It can search the Internet, check email, make most banking transactions, and order food or a car to your exact location, not to mention your social media and all the different ways it enables both self expression and mass communication. As a society we’ve agreed this is awesome. For all of it to happen, the companies providing these services need to access and share your personal, banking, and location information. This is not really news and even though it may scare people, we’ve long since consented or opted in. Even though the passage of the bill resulted in increases in coverage and led to more aggressive calls for repeal or revaluation, those close to the issue say its changes are here to stay. At most, the language will be edited to be more palatable as the bill goes back to Parliament.
Just hours after a petition against the Investigatory Powers Act reached 10,000 signatures, the government announced plans to appoint a national censor for online pornography and alluded to more stringent restrictions on certain types of adult content that experts warn penalizes sexual minorities while creating a national database of porn-watchers and their fetishes. What used to be private is literally being collected.
The Investigatory Powers Act doesn’t make that much more of your personal data available It formalizes a new standard of privacy by involving the government and consolidating the information you already provide into one place. Government involvement is what generally turns ‘data mining’ into ‘surveillance’. They both involve gathering personal data, the difference is in how that information can be used. Where a company practicing data mining, like Facebook, may use your personal data to ‘improve user experience’ or help sell ads, state institutions can use that same data in far more substantial ways.
It’s not all tacit acceptance, though. There is growing opposition to the bill. The Investigatory Powers Act marks a new standard for what data people consider private and personal and what can theoretically become official state business. There was a time when what you read or watched was not collected for any reason. This is no longer the case. The most sinister reading of the bill is that it allows government to record everything we access. By subjecting leisure activities to a new level of scrutiny, it effectively polices free time. The dark assumption as to why someone would police your free time is that what you’re doing can somehow be used against you. The increase in surveillance has a lot of critics lamenting the death of freedom and quoting Orwell, which is understandable, though if we’re picking dystopias, the situation is probably closer to Brave New World. Neil Postman famously pointed out that the difference between Orwell and Huxley is in how their dystopias are created. In 1984, fear is what drives surveillance and oppresses the public. Brave New World features a similarly repressed society, but people are essentially blackmailed by what brings them joy. The Huxlian idea of private pleasures as the source of government intrusion is what makes The Investigatory Powers Act different from overt censorship even if the end result is the same: people change how they behave online because they’re afraid their digital activities will be revealed.
A recent episode of Black Mirror brings Huxley’s idea to a more contemporary context, using social media to illustrate how constant digital surveillance injects an element of performance into everything we do. The show uses exaggerated situations to explore the consequences of our reliance on various technologies. One episode focuses on a young woman desperate to improve her social score, which correlates to her social rank. People are ranked on a scale from one to five and these scores become a kind of class system. Higher ranked individuals receive preferential treatment and a person’s number becomes a manifestation of their worth as certain services are only available to people with high enough scores. Every real-life interaction is rated and contributes to characters’ overall score, resulting in shallow and disingenuous relationships that are based on pleasing one another. In Black Mirror, the surveillance is by committee. Other people, not the government, are the authority capable of awarding and subtracting points.
Perhaps the most chilling scene in the episode is when the main character, Lacie, has a coffee while ‘working on her socials’ or broadcasting her mundane and traditionally private activities in hopes of getting enough points to raise her overall score. After a series of overly sweet greetings and carefully biting off a small section of a cookie so it looks perfect in the picture she posts online, Lacie winces when she actually goes to take a sip of her coffee. In a split second the effect of constant digital driven surveillance becomes clear: Lacie does not like the coffee she orders every day but continues to do so because people are watching. Her choice of drink flavour is not considered private in a world where these things are expected to be shared online. People might not notice or care what Lacie’s drinking but since she could be awarded points for every aspect of her life, Lacie tailors her behaviour to maximize every small detail for points..
Black Mirror is careful to present a continuum of consent or different characters opting into this perpetual surveillance via social media to different degrees. However, although Lacie could obviously ease up in her quest for more points, opting out of the game entirely is not an option. Even the enlightened, off-the-grid, low-score character has a ‘feed’ and Lacie can quickly scan through her most recent interactions. The show may be hyperbole but its point about the idea of someone watching being just as powerful as actual surveillance is very real.
Constant surveillance as a form of control is not new. Years before smartphones and social media, Jeremy Bentham designed a prison where thousands of inmates would suffer through a similar paranoid performative existence as Lacie’s in Black Mirror. He called it The Panopticon. It’s a circular building with cells on the outside surrounding a tower in the middle for the lone guard or source of surveillance. The guard can see out of the tower but none of the prisoners can see the guard. They know he may be looking but cannot be sure when. Bentham theorized this constant state of maybe being watched would force prisoners to act as if the guard was staring right at them all the time. Applying Bentham’s principle outside of jail and in the context of the Investigatory Powers Act, everything that accesses the Internet becomes a guard tower that may be sending your online activity to a government agency. The act is a big deal because it makes the idea of private social information becoming public a legitimate possibility. That said, just because something is searchable does not necessarily mean someone will look it up. The real fear in surveillance is not from being watched but being judged based on what the watcher saw. If something stands out, people will have more incentive to investigate and pass judgement on whatever behaviour caused the anomaly or is in someway different from the norm. Theoretically, when more data is available, the only way to maintain the same level of privacy as before is to give no reason for people to look at that data even though they now can.
In this data driven world where our most intimate details are available, we can still find comfort in everyone else being equally exposed. Knowing the same discussion has been happening since Bentham, Orwell, and Huxley, it can be comforting to see privacy as a spectrum rather than a fixed concept. What is traditionally private will continue to evolve. It’s likely we will keep enjoying the ability to connect to each other and different devices through new technology. These new devices will determine what information remains off the grid and what you must trade to participate in an increasingly social digital society. The distinction between information not being available and not being acted on will grow much more apparent. As personal data becomes more accessible than ever, anonymity becomes the new privacy. The data is out there but so long as no one has the incentive to access it, any secrets are still as unexposed as they would have been had the data not been collected. This makes perpetual performance to avoid unwanted attention or someone making use of your available personal data the scariest consequence of increased surveillance. Its why Black Mirror is creepy and Bentham’s prison only needs one guard. Perhaps the scariest part about the Investigatory Powers Act is not the government’s increased surveillance abilities, but that we keep changing our behaviour when we feel someone is watching.