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Are we a nation that is ruled by fear?

by Josef Kafka

Are we a nation that is ruled by fear?

During the Second World War the nation was warned that walls have ears. Later, into the sixties, the caution was that you could find “reds under the bed”. Even in the US, during WW1 a 'Spies are Listening' poster warned that “the web is spun for you with invisible threads”. It seems excessive, yet many people still believe that we are constantly in danger from what others might do to us as we muddle through our daily existence – these days by the threat of terrorism. However, there is an equal and opposite concern for many, caused by the increasing and often covert methods used by those listening in to our lives on behalf of the British government, claiming that it is all for our own good. Are we in fact being ruled by fear? 

This has been brought to a head now by the surveillance legislation being rushed through Parliament, probably as you read this. It may already be on the statute book. Reaction has been thoroughly mixed, with the Prime Minister gaining cross-party support for the measure, yet The Independent front page headline quietly suggesting – “Cameron plots to bring back snoopers’ charter”. 

How we have reached this point

A brief back story takes us to earlier this year, when the European Court of Justice struck down regulations enabling Communication Service Providers to retain communications data for up to one year for law enforcement purposes. Therefore, unless kept for business reasons, companies may delete it and this would potentially cause serious problems for long-term criminal investigations and the like. At the same time, some companies wanted a clearer legal framework to underpin the cooperation they offer to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access content under a warrant signed by a Secretary of State. 

The outcome is the emergency Data Retention and Investigation Powers Bill, which is intended to respond to the judgement and bring clarity to existing law. The government said that it would also announce new measures to increase both transparency and oversight. A “sunset” clause means the legislation automatically falls after two years.

The coalition partners and the opposition seem satisfied with this, but others are not. Civil liberties groups, probably unsurprisingly, are up in arms (although that may not be the best of terminology) and The Guardian claims to have seen internal Home Office documents that offer doubts concerning such promises. Objectionists suggest that, for example, overseas companies would be required to comply with interception warrants and communications data acquisition requests. Many simply see it as further state intrusion into our personal or business lives, snooping on what should be private and confidential communications.

Enter Edward Snowden

The whistle-blower and US government’s nemesis has also entered the fray. Still in Russia, where he is believed to be asking for an extension to his initial asylum period, he was recently interviewed by The Guardian. He expressed surprise at this turn of events, and the sudden urgency. He feels that this mirrors a move in the US seven years ago when the National Security Agency (NSA) cited the same concerns. Snowden also believed it to be very unusual for such emergency legislation to be introduced except in a time of war, adding that “…we don’t have bombs falling. We don’t have U-boats in the harbour”.

Do you have nosy neighbours?

To reduce the debate to its simplest terms, think about the people living around you. Is there one house where the curtain twitch as you walk by? Do the people living there ask where you’ve been if they haven’t seen you for a few days or are keen to know who those visitors were? If so, you might have one of two reactions to their behaviour. The first is to find them thoroughly irritating. The other is to know that you can rely on them to watch out for anything happening in your area that shouldn’t be, or surveil (unasked) your house when you’re not around. In other words, do you find them intrusive and unacceptable or a price worth paying to feel more secure?

The rule of fear and you

For neighbours, read government and their security operations. Of course, just as with neighbours, your response might well depend on the environment where you live. A life spent in a relaxed rural backwater might lead to a different state of mind to that of a busy city suburb. The likelihood of any terrorist activity might well affect your thinking – although, equally, those furthest removed can often have a more polarised or insular view than those who spend their daily lives in a multi-ethnic environment.

The government’s problem is that any claims over security concerns can only be proved right by something going wrong. A bomb in an airport would probably show that they were right but they would quickly be blamed for not preventing it. Plots thwarted tend not to make the news, unless in high-profile court cases which do remind us that not everyone living in our land always has its best interests in their heart. Recent events in Syria and Iraq give further cause for concern.

At the end of the day, it’s always your personal view on whether the balance between privacy and security, protecting and snooping is being effectively set and maintained.

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