Surveillance: It’s not all about you

Ambivalence about the rights of others is unpatriotic.


The Investigatory Powers Bill will be published tomorrow.  The Home Secretary will set out her vision for what snooping powers the security services should have in their tool-box, and also what oversight parliament, the judiciary, and independent ‘watchdogs’ should have over the use of those powers.

I work for English PEN, one of the six organisations leading the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.  Be in no doubt I will be sharing our analysis of the proposed new law and recommendations for improvement.

A constant issue regarding civil liberties (and one that we have discussed before on these pages) is how to convince members of the public to care about human rights when few of us ever actually experience a violation of those rights.  In the past, I have discussed the idea of ‘everyday rights‘ and the notion that, even if we are not tortured or detained, our lives are made marginally worse when our rights are eroded, even in small ways.

The Act for The Act initiative speaks to this concern.  It presents ‘normal’ looking people who had to use the Human Rights Act in order to get justice.  The message is that you, the voter, the citizen, could need human rights protections too.

I believe this is true and I think the Act for the Act campaign will be effective in building public support.  However, we need not appeal to selfish instincts.  There is also another answer to the question “why should I care when it doesn’t affect me?”  It is simply to say “its not all about you”.

Yes, most people will not be spied upon.  Most of us have utterly boring political lives and internet browsing histories and GCHQ will studiously avoid us.  But being part of a democracy, a polity, a country, means that you look out for your neighbours.  Most of us never have to call the fire brigade, but we are happy for our taxes to be spent on a service that other people can summon in times of need.  In a similar manner, even if we are pretty sure we will never be the target of MI5 surveillance, we should support laws that ensure our fellow citizens do not have their rights abused and their privacy invaded.

We should all be angry that Doreen Lawrence was spied upon.  Not only because, pace Pastor Martin Niemöller, “next they will come for me” but because we should simply empathise with Mrs Lawrence and her family, fellow British people, fellow human beings.

We should be angry that peaceful animal rights groups were infiltrated by the police, not because they could also infiltrate our bingo club, but because it was indecent and wrong.

If you’re happy for Muslims or ethnic minorities, or awkward political activists to be spied upon, then you’re not supporting your fellow Brits.  Ambivalence about the rights of others is unpatriotic.

4 thoughts on “Surveillance: It’s not all about you”

  1. you fucking hypocrites,if i posted a hastag #killallblack men or #killallasianwomen you hypocrites and the police would be dragging me into the courts to be sentenced quick time in prison,but some asian racist woman bahar mustafa can tweet racist filth that leads to the racist murders like that of 15 year old kriss donald at the hands of 3 brown skinned muslim racists in scotland and you think that is ok.well fuck you,#whitelivesmatter,get it….stuart from birmingham

    1. Thanks for sharing, Stuart.

      It all depends on the context. Note that you have just posted precisely those hashtags and no-one is coming for you… Because in themselves the tags aren’t credible threats and the context makes plain you don’t really mean it. Read in context, Bahar’s tweets aren’t credible threats either. I am sure there will be people who have been prosecuted for posting racist stuff and in the absence of a direct threat to an individual I would condemn those prosecutions too. In fact I’m on record as someone who opposes ‘hate speech’ (as legally distinct from ‘incitement’) so the one thing I cannot be accused of here is hypocrisy.

  2. Ambivalence about the rights of others is unpatriotic.

    That’s nice. Though I’ve been trying to avoid the language of rights, to focus on the decency thing you mention. As you say – it’s not all about you

    1. Thanks. Of course, calling anyone unpatriotic is shrill, but since the whiff of patriotism hangs around this entire debate, I think it’s valid.

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