When we debate surveillance (whether its CCTV or snooping on our e-mails) the debate is usually framed as a trade off between civil liberties and security. Its the right to privacy versus the right to be protected from crime. Often, civil libertarians seek to win the argument by highlighting how the State can be tyrannical, oppressive, corrupt… or unworthy of trust. Our governments are compared literary dystopias like Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four or to real-life dictatorships like North Korea. These arguments are persuasive to some.
But as I have discussed previously, this approach does not persuade everyone. And by deploying these arguments, civil liberties campaigners actually leave themselves exposed. What if you do not believe that (say) the UK is as bad as North Korea? What if you think that, on balance, Teresa May, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Robert Hannigan are actually on our side and not out to seize tyrannical control of the people? All this chat about nefarious government agents acting like the Stasi will simply not persuade.
When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect. In physics, this is the concept that says that by measuring something, you change it. And we’re talking about surveillance, The Observer Effect means that simply by watching someone, you change their behaviour. Continue reading
When a country enjoys relatively good protections for human rights, citing the most extreme examples of rights abuses elsewhere could inspire compancency, not vigilance. To make the defence of the Human Rights Act into a vote winner, we need to frame the debate closer to home.
Last week I made some notes on Yvette Cooper’s speech on the balance between liberty and security. I wrote this:
The Shadow Cabinet need to find the passion and the language to defend the Human Rights Act against a sustained Tory attack. If the entire Labour Party routinely cites liberty as a way of empowering ordinary people, then its support for human rights can become a vote winner.
I have been thinking more about what that ‘language’ shoud be… and what it should not be. Is the current approach to human rights advocacy effective in the British context?
A favourite tactic of human rights campaigners is to argue that a particular policy could send us down a ‘slippery slope’ to more widespread rights violations. We also use the ‘boiling frog‘ analogy, where tiny changes (to the law, or to the temperature in the pan) eventually leads to danger. The argument appears in three guises, depending on whether the end result is similar to an example from 1) fiction; 2) another country; or 3) some point in history.
I have been away this week and unable to write anything on the PRISM revelations that have dominated the news over the past few days. Here are a few notes and links in lieu of something more rounded.
At ORGcon, I did preface my remarks during the ‘free speech online in the UK’ panel to note that the right to free speech includes the right not to be surveilled. If you think your conversations are being monitored, then you are not going to speak as freely as you may wish. (I will post a longer reflection on the ORGcon discussion soon).
This week I did read an article by Daniel Solove in the Chronicle of Higher Education which summarises variations on the “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” argument for surveillance. It’s obviously extremely relevant given recent revelations surrounding the US Government’s PRISM programme.
Solove’s article is a frustrating read, because the arguments against surveillance are, like many human rights issues, bound up in ‘slippery slope’ or ‘boiling frog’ concepts that tend not to resonate with ordinary people. Public interest (and outrage) at privacy invasions only occur when rare real-life examples manifest themselves, as when the damage has already been done (the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone being the prime example). Liberally minded people who oppose surveillance and privacy intrusions on principle need more sound-bites to compete with “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. Solove lists a few candidates – “Why do you have curtains, then?” is probably the best retort. Continue reading
More on the trend towards the digitisation of books and what that means for culture, politics and society… this time, from George Orwell.
Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop…. Also it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.
Orwell did not forsee the rise of the Amazon behemoth! Nevertheless, his 1936 essay ‘Bookshop Memories’ is still relevant today (indeed, one might argue that Orwell’s nack for remaining relevant is the source of his greatness). Our current appeals to tactility-as-a-virtue are there, alongside concerns that the public generally has a taste for low-brow thriillers and romances, rather than classics from the canon.
Elsewhere, he mentions the fact that bookshops were also lending libraries. In this, I wonder if there is a parallel with Amazon? Since the early days of the Kindle, we have known that books one ‘buys’ for the machine are actually just licenced. Three years ago, Amazon remotely deleted all copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four from Kindle devices, a manoever that was at once horrifying and hilarious. Last month, a Norwegian woman was declared a persona non grata by the company, and all her purchases were deleted from her device without warning. Continue reading