Stop Watching Us protests, but not in the UK

Posted by Dr Lina Dencik

Stop Watching Us protests, but not in the UKOn Saturday people took to the streets in Washington, DC to protest against mass online surveillance, but why has there been so little reaction in the UK?

Thousands of people protested in Washington, DC and around the United States on Saturday to voice their anger at the revelations of mass online surveillance programmes operated by the National Security Agency (NSA). The rally was organised by Stop Watching Us, a coalition of public advocacy organisations and companies that formed in June 2013 after the leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden were published in the Washington Post and the Guardian.

Simultaneous protests took place in Germany and last month people marched in Paris under the same Stop Watching Us banner. But where are the protests in the UK? The documents provided by Snowden show that Britain has been at the forefront of online surveillance alongside the United States and has not only cooperated with the NSA but has operated its very own mass online surveillance programmes.

But in Britain we haven’t taken to the streets. In fact, we don’t really seem to care. YouGov published a poll a few days ago that showed that only 19% of the public think that the British security services should cut back their surveillance powers. The same poll also showed that the majority of the British public thought the recent leaks about surveillance powers were a ‘bad thing’ which aid Britain’s enemies. This is in marked contrast to opinion polls done in the US in the wake of the Snowden leaks which show significant concerns over privacy. In fact, Pew Research Center published a poll already back in July that showed that for the first time since the question was first asked in 2004 there is a greater concern with loss of civil liberties than with fear of terrorism amongst the American public.

President Obama has had to react to public outcry over NSA’s activities and announced in August a review of Section 205 of the Patriot Act and of NSA’s powers. In Britain, however, the parliamentary debate last week was not about the use of mass online surveillance programmes by the British state, but about the Guardian newspaper and whether it is guilty of treason for reporting on the activities carried out by NSA and GCHQ. The inquiry that will launch this week into British intelligence services after months of campaigning by privacy campaigners is already rumoured to be undermined by the close relationship between the Intelligence and Security Committee and the agencies in question and looks to mainly discuss whether the Guardian has ‘endangered national security’. When evidence now shows that GCHQ wanted to keep Tempora out of public debate predominantly because of questions around the legality of the programme more than anything else, why are we not up in arms about this? Why aren’t we protesting?

Some political activists I have spoken with have suggested that in a time of austerity bread-and-butter issues take precedence and people will take to the streets over issues that affect their pockets rather than what they perceive to be abstract concerns over rights. It is, perhaps, not co-incidental that in Cardiff this weekend, on the same day as Stop Watching Us was taking place in the United States and elsewhere, it was a march against the bedroom tax that made noise in the streets.

This is an enormously pressing issue for large numbers of people that struggle to make ends meet. But do current circumstances make privacy concerns and worries about who and what interferes with our communication a privilege? Certainly David Cameron would like us to think so. In a speech on Friday he described concerns over the way security measures are being used as ‘la-di-da, airy-fairy’ views, appealing to a generally dominant narrative that has shaped much of the post-Snowden public debate in Britain; a sort of patriotic duty not to question or challenge the work of British security services. In a piece for the German magazine Spiegel, Christoph Scheuermann argues that underlying the lack of interest in the Snowden leaks and the surveillance activities of GCHQ in the UK is a widespread blind and uncritical trust in the work of intelligence services: “Some still see the GCHQ as a club of amiable gentlemen in shabby tweed jackets who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma coding machine in World War II. The majority of people instinctively rally round their government on key issues of defense policy, sovereignty and home rule.”

The sheer level of surveillance in the UK with famously more CCTV cameras per inhabitant than any other country may have made surveillance such a part of everyday life in the UK that most British people were completely unsurprised when they found out about PRISM and Tempora – we already fully expected that this sort of thing was going on.

Perhaps.  But now that we have concrete evidence and know the actual details of how extensive these online surveillance programmes actually are from telecommunications to social media platforms to search engines to mobile apps, indiscriminately targeting our everyday communication infrastructure, why are we keeping quiet? Well, it might very well be that most of us actually don’t know what has really been going on with our communication infrastructure and what is actually at stake. Apart from the Guardian that broke the story to begin with, the British mainstream media has largely kept us in the dark about the activities of GCHQ. Just in the past few weeks, operations carried out by the British secret services that seriously question legality and jurisdiction (such as hacking into Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom and spying on Italian government agencies and companies for business interests) have been making front-pages across continental Europe, whilst barely making it onto the news agenda in the UK.

The event that received the most attention was the revelation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the subject of surveillance, but the streams of documentation on the surveillance of ordinary citizens has received relatively little attention in British news media. Rather, the debate in the media has been dominated by a focus on the decision by the Guardian to publish the leaks in the first place with an almost completely uncritical acceptance of claims made by the government and government agencies about the supposed ‘threat to security’ that the newspaper has created in doing so.

The interview between Kirsty Wark and Glenn Greenwald on Newsnight earlier this month and continued republication of claims made by British intelligence services about Snowden’s activities and handling of data in large parts of the press show quite clearly how there has been a general lack of duty to properly interrogate institutions of power and hold them to account on these issues. This has lead to a skewed debate on the topic of mass online surveillance that has done little to inform the British public about the nature of technologies that are a central part of their everyday lives. Perhaps if we were provided with more critical information and discussion we would also care more. Although the results of the YouGov poll might suggest general contentment with the state of affairs such a reading makes it too easy for the powers that be.

Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman last Wednesday on why he doesn’t vote has dominated social media in the last couple of days and received millions of hits on youtube, suggesting that there is a widespread frustration with the nature of contemporary politics amongst many people. That such frustration hasn’t translated into loud collective reactions to such core issues as the gathering and use of our private information and government interference into our everyday communications in the UK should concern us – and we need to really ask why.