To most people, data is an abstract idea — at most, a term for monthly internet usage. But it is actually so much more than that. It absorbs who we are: where we go, and who we speak to, what we are interested in, what we stand for, and what we care about.
In November last year, the Conservative government passed what US whistleblower Edward Snowden described at the time as “the most extreme surveillance [law] in the history of western democracy”, with barely a whimper from the British public.
Nicknamed the Snoopers’ Charter, the Investigatory Powers Act forces tech companies to hoard user data for 12 months, resulting in bureaucratic institutions having access to more of our data than ever before.
Data and surveillance are inextricably linked. Data, the goal. Surveillance, the means. And neither are taken seriously enough.
One of the main arguments people make for their lack of interest in mass surveillance is: ‘why should it matter if I haven’t done anything wrong?’
The government, meanwhile, is dismissive, pointing out that it is ‘just data’ — as if that means it is not intrusive.
In reality, there are numerous ramifications to allowing the government mass surveillance powers — and numerous ways in which your data could be used against you.
1. Your data could effectively testify against you in a court of law
Although data is ambiguous, in a court of law data evidence can exceed reasonable doubt.
In 2015, ex-CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling was convicted of espionage for being the source of information leaked to journalist James Risen about covert Operation Merlin. The evidence? Metadata. Just Metadata.
The verdict was reached based on records of phone calls and emails exchanged by Sterling and Risen. The actual contents of these communications were never disclosed – just the data trail.
Sterling’s ‘trial by metadata’ resulted in a three and a half year prison sentence.
Ok, you might not be planning to leak classified information to the New York Times, but Sterling’s case is evidence that data is content and interpretation is key.
2. Metadata can be used to target activists and undermine direct action
Data can be used to prosecute those, like Sterling, who threaten the establishment. It can also be used to identify and track them.
Governments have always tried to contain civil disobedience; even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was allegedly spied on for two decades because of his involvement in human rights and social justice campaigns.
Now faced with a digital world and globalised community, the state is meeting old threats in new ways. This is clear from the new use and interpretation of old laws, the introduction of new ones and the existence of secret surveillance and hacking programmes.
In 2015, Ofcom declared the UK a ‘smartphone society’. In the same year, StingRay arrived in the country, threatening our communications further. Although the name originates from the first device of its kind, StingRay is a generic term for any technology that mimics wireless cellular carrier towers, forcing smart devices to connect to it. StingRay then acts as a middleman, monitoring data that is sent and received whilst a device is connected. This gives the government unprecedented access to data within a confined area, for example, at a protest or activist meeting.
A year before StingRay arrived in the UK, activists in the US claimed police used similar technology at a protest in Chicago. By allowing the state direct access to phone records, campaigners say StingRay essentially allows police to bypass search warrants.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of California, police have also used social media software to target activism and protests in the US. Unions and activist groups have been labelled ‘overt threats’, and hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #ItsTimeForChange have been monitored.
There is nothing in place to stop this happening in the UK – in fact it might be happening already.
Unfortunately, a study by Open Democracy and St. Andrew’s University found that in many cases activists do not adapt well to being monitored. Direct action becomes impossible to organise because of the lack of secure communication tools. Activism is inhibited as a result.
3. Surveillance does not make us safer
Following terrorist attacks in London and Manchester in May and June this year, the establishment – with the help of the mainstream media – did its best to co-opt fear and use tragedy to further its own agenda, citing ‘national security’ as a justification for increased surveillance.
Four days after the Westminster attack, Home Secretary Amber Rudd condemned WhatsApp’s encryption practices as “completely unacceptable”, because they only allow the sender and recipient of a message to see its contents. This made it impossible for the police to see the content of attacker Khalid Masood’s last messages. Trying to justify her demand that the government should be allowed to see what citizens say to one another, Rudd said: “There should be no place for terrorists to hide.”
But while the Tories are trying to use terrorism to justify further surveillance, there is little to suggest mass surveillance aids in terrorism prevention. In fact it may do the opposite.
In the aftermath of the London Bridge attack, it emerged that one of the attackers, Youseff Zaghba, had been placed on the EU terrorism watch list. Italian authorities had also informed the UK of Zaghba’s attempt to join ISIS a year prior to the attack. While travelling from Bologna airport to Syria, via Turkey, he reportedly proclaimed “I am going to be a terrorist.”
The UK was sent details of his arrest but with this, and hordes of personal data collected through mass programmes since his arrival in London last year, the government still failed in flagging him as a threat – Scotland Yard said he was not a police or MI5 person of interest.
NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, who was indicted on espionage charges in 2010, claims that the NSA had collected data that would have aided the prevention of 9/11, but it was buried under irrelevant information mined from the American people. Consequently, relevant data was overlooked.
Here we see repetition; 9/11 was manipulated to further the establishment’s agenda. Nearly two decades later, the media and the establishment continue to use the same argument despite clear evidence that mass surveillance does not make us safer.
4. The way in which our data is sold and used is inherently capitalist – and surveillance is becoming more invasive as a result
In a 2010 post on MetaFilter, a user stated, “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”. Seven years later, the truth in this statement could not be clearer.
The clearest example is Facebook, which provides nearly two billion people worldwide with a string of online services: a social network, a marketplace, and a messaging tool. Although these appear free, you actually repay the mogul with every bit of information you input into its services. Here are some of the basic categories suggested for targeted advertising: age, gender, location. And there are ‘detailed categories’, which are based on what is shared on your timeline, what links you click, and activities you engage in on and off Facebook measured by things like device usage, purchase behaviours or intents and travel preferences.
A huge 98% of Facebook’s $9.3 billion revenue this quarter came from advertising.
The information Facebook gathers could be about to get even more personal… In May, CB Insights revealed three patents detailing Facebook’s plans for the future. Among them was a plan to capture images of users through smartphone cameras and webcams in order to detect emotion. Reactions would be monitored when users were exposed to different types of content, allowing for even more intimately targeted advertising.
How to beat mass surveillance
Data is becoming increasingly difficult – and dangerous – to ignore as new regulations allow the government to infringe more and more upon our privacy. When confronted with such an abstract threat, it is easy to retreat or to passively accept the line that more data means more safety. But it does not: More data means more power and control to those in charge.
Instead of sitting by, take control of your data. Mass surveillance violates your privacy in so many ways; it subjects you to more and more advertising, it could be used to sell a future hike in tuition fees, it could even label you a terrorist or send you to prison.
The easiest way to combat mass surveillance and prevent data collection is by simply checking your social media, web browsing and email settings. Using End to End Encryption (E2EE) – which only allows you and the recipient of your messages to see the content – is also easier than it sounds; as the big data debate gets bigger, momentum has been building for apps like Telegram and Signal, messaging services that keep communications between users private by automatically downloading encryption keys. Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) also offers cryptographic privacy for emails to whole disk partitions.
In a digital age, it is also worth remembering the pen and paper. Never underestimate the privacy value of simply writing something down.