London, United Kingdom – Almost a decade ago, the head of the UK’s privacy watchdog voiced concerns about how advances in technology coupled with greater powers vested in the police, security services and other authorities to tackle issues such as terrorism and immigration risked undermining the liberties of British citizens.
“My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries, than British society would feel comfortable with,” Richard Thomas, the then-information commissioner, told the Times newspaper in 2004.
Following revelations by Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower, about the volume of internet and telephone data being secretly compiled about them by state intelligence services, and shocking allegations about the activities of undercover police officers, even the least paranoid of Britons could now be forgiven for adopting the restless fidgeting and sideways glances of an inveterate conspiracy theorist.
“By what definition of a police state are we not already living in a police state?” wrote one correspondent to the Guardian newspaper, which broke details of both stories last weekend. “The fact that I hesitate to write my name under this email for fear of reprisal only confirms that self-censorship, the sign of living in fear under a totalitarian regime, is already starting to make itself felt.”
According to papers leaked by Snowden, analysts at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a security agency specialising in electronic eavesdropping, gained access to much of the world’s internet and telephone traffic by tapping into fibre-optic cables running in and out of the country.
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The secret project, codenamed Tempora, was launched in 2008 with the bold ambition of “Mastering the Internet”, according to the title of one GCHQ document.
Civil liberties campaigners argue that GCHQ used the project to circumvent legal restrictions on their ability to spy on Britons by treating internet activity routed through servers abroad as external traffic, and therefore beyond the scope of UK law. In a confidential briefing to US counterparts at the NSA, a senior British official allegedly boasted of the country’s “light oversight regime”.
Coming just days after allegations that foreign leaders were spied on while attending the 2009 G20 summit in London, details about Tempora have also raised international concerns.
A ‘Hollywood nightmare’
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, Germany’s justice minister, described the project as a “Hollywood nightmare” and wrote to the British government seeking clarity over its legality and whether any German citizens had been targeted.
Meanwhile, the undercover activities of London’s Metropolitan Police are also under scrutiny after a former officer said he had been deployed to spy on the family of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager murdered in a racist attack in 1993, in an effort to find information to discredit the family’s campaign for justice.
In other cases involving the same now-disbanded unit, officers infiltrated environmental and political groups using the identities of dead children, with some even fathering children by female activists during their years of working undercover.
Campaigners say recent stories have only confirmed Britain’s place as one of the worst offenders internationally, when it comes to respecting its citizens’ right to privacy.
Gus Hosein, executive director at campaign group Privacy International, told Al Jazeera the UK ranked poorly in the democratic world in terms of the amount of intrusion it allowed, describing the government as “addicted” to new surveillance powers and technologies.
“The UK’s surveillance laws are amongst the most lax across the world,” he said. “We knew that the laws were drafted with massive holes in them to permit mass surveillance, but we had been promised so many times that this surveillance was not taking place. We didn’t believe them, and Edward Snowden’s revelations have given us the proof that we so badly needed.”
Addressing parliament after details of the extent of British internet surveillance were exposed, William Hague, the foreign secretary, defended the UK security agencies’ secret activities as necessary to protect the country from terrorism and serious crime, and said that they acted within the law.
“If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country going about your business and personal life, you have nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the content of your phone calls or anything like that,” Hague told the BBC.
“Indeed, you will never be aware of all the things that these agencies are doing to stop your identity being stolen or to stop a terrorist blowing you up tomorrow.”
But campaigners are concerned that Britons could be subjected to even greater levels of surveillance in the future. The latest leaks about GCHQ’s activities came just weeks after the government abandoned efforts to pass a new communications data bill that would have enhanced the security services’ abilities to legally gather more data on British citizens by requiring internet service providers to retain details about their customers’ online activities.
Hosein said the degree of surveillance permitted by the proposed legislation, dubbed a “snooper’s charter” by critics, was on “an unprecedented scale for a democratic nation”.
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Yet following the killing of a British soldier in London last month, supporters of the bill, including three former home secretaries from the opposition Labour Party, called for it to be revived, arguing that intelligence services needed greater powers to combat the threat of terrorism.
Emma Carr of Big Brother Watch told Al Jazeera that revelations about the scale of existing surveillance operations had rendered the political debate over the bill largely redundant.
“The whole point about having laws in place is that they are debated very heavily, for many years in some cases, to make sure that there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect privacy,” she said. “If those laws are being circumvented, then what is the point of having them in the first place?”
David Murakami Wood, editor of the Surveillance and Society journal and co-editor of an official 2006 report on surveillance issues in the UK, also cited concerns about the country’s extensive use of security cameras and predicted that drones could soon be deployed as spies in the skies.
“Britain is still a world leader in CCTV,” Murakami Wood told Al Jazeera. “Once again, terrorism is the justification, but the use of drones against terrorist suspects seems rather limited: it seems more that these things will be used for crowd control, in other words, political policing.”
Current levels of covert intelligence gathering in the UK and other western nations posed a threat to democratic accountability, he added.
“Essentially, and for a long time, [intelligence services] have been acting as rogue agencies beyond democratic control. There is very little evidence that much of what they do in secret, would not be better done in public. That’s not to say that there can be no secrecy, but the current levels of secret government action are not conducive to democracy.”
Hosein said he took heart from growing awareness of privacy issues in the UK, citing how public pressure had forced previous governments to abandon schemes to introduce ID cards and a DNA database, but he called for more openness about surveillance at government level.
“The UK is a democracy, it is not East Germany or North Korea. And a democracy under the rule of law is far better positioned to address these problems,” he said. “But secrecy is certainly a common thread amongst these countries.”
Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @HooperAJ