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I spy with my many eyes: do we need greater surveillance powers?

by / 0 Comments / 14/10/2014

Party conference season is now over, and the issue of surveillance powers rose to the agenda once again. Increasing threats to national security are pressuring politicians to become more vocal on the issue, some even suggesting that security services are granted increased surveillance powers to tackle cyber-crime. Yet is there a need for greater surveillance powers?

The impact of the Global Surveillance Disclosures in 2013 revealed how far the NSA and its European partners have come, transforming the majority of modern world into a ‘surveillance super-state’. Various social movements were established, and continue to function in order to lobby for greater privacy. Politicians came out to defend the various agencies under scrutiny. US President Barak Obama assured the public that the agencies were not ‘spying on Americans’. In the United Kingdom William Hague flocked to the defence of the mass surveillance program. He reiterated that British-US relations could not be damaged by these revelations, as the spying programs had ‘saved many lives’. Fast forward to October 2014, and the issue of surveillance powers have topped the news agenda yet again.

At the (recent) Conservative Party conference, Home Secretary Theresa May reiterated the ever-growing threat of ISIS and radical movements. She vowed that a future Tory government would introduce a communications bill, legislation that was ‘torpedoed’ by the Liberal Democrats two years ago. To grant greater powers would allow authorities access to email and call data, without public agreement.

The Lib Dems however stated that the reasoning behind their actions against the so called ‘snoopers charter’, was due to a lack of clarity and specific detail. They also pointed out that the British police force already had access to a range of powers, put there by the government to tackle online crime.

Is there a case to be made in increasing surveillance powers used on behalf of the state and authorities?

Greater powers, could, on the one hand grant an increased amount of safety from serious criminals and terrorists in an internet age. During an interview with the Guardian, Lee Bristow – head of the National Crime Agency (NCA) – called for greater powers to be made available. He stated that serious criminals, paedophiles, drug and human traffickers were now ‘operating in a digital world.’

Yet these powers could come at a cost to the British public, in regards to a limitation of digital freedoms. The NCA and government would have to embark on a campaign to restore public confidence in the agency’s ability to tackle cyber-crime, without violating the rights of everyday citizens. It is a slightly laughable notion to take on board, given the impact of Edward Snowden’s revelations. To install these powers without consulting the public would condemn the government and the NCA. A ‘snoopers’ charter would also have to install clarity over who it is aimed at. Online privacy is just as a vital to a citizen, as is their right to greater security.

The issue is an ethical minefield that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Are the public willing to install confidence in the security agencies? And are the public willing to part ways with digital freedoms, in order to allow greater ‘snooping’ powers to be brought in?