S = situation definition
There are two things the English love more than tea and Cornish pasties, and they are scandals and civil liberties.
So when the UK government recently proposed increased surveillance of social media, emails and other online conversations under the guise of improving law enforcement, my countrymen caused an almighty stink.
It’s a “destruction of human rights!” cried Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s legendary inventor. “Say NO to the snoopers’ charter!” cried civil rights group Liberty. “Impossible, expensive and dangerous” sneered Internet Service Providers. Even a member of the Conservative government, David Davis, voiced concern about invasions of privacy in a “decent, civilised society.”
But the government, as it said in its 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, claimed it needed to “preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data.”
Communications data is involved in nearly every single counter-terrorism initiative and serious crime investigation. Moreover, the government’s proposals were fairly tame. They wanted police to have the power to intercept communications data without needing to get permission from a magistrate – including who is contacting who and the email addresses involved, but not the content of those communications.
I struggle to balance my gut reaction against unnecessary snooping and prying by the state with the desire to stop terrorists and criminals before they launch an attack.
Should I encourage or protest against increased surveillance of our online activities under the guise of law enforcement?
And if I’m willing to encourage it in the West, is it morally inconsistent if I do not also encourage it in other countries – including what are considered to be repressive regimes?
A = analysis of the situation
Until the modern age of cyber warfare and terrorism, the arguments for maximum privacy and civil liberties were strong. We all desire to live in a free society without feeling the burning eye of big brother watching our every move. Moreover, giving law enforcement officers the power to target innocent people without a warrant may lead to the abuse of authority, racial profiling, blackmail and other undesirable social consequences.
Since 9/11 and the 7/7 London terrorist attacks, however, it has become harder to make a case for allowing terrorists free rein to plot and recruit in blissful privacy. In the U.S., laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and PATRIOT Act are in force; in the U.K. there are similar laws including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act 2000 and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Few people can argue with the alleged motivation behind these laws, which is to keep citizens safe.
On the one hand, then, the government has a duty to its citizens to protect their personal information and give them the freedom they need to live their lives. On the other hand, they have a duty to keep society safe.
One may argue that only criminals stand to lose. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you won’t mind being spied on. If you are, you’re more likely to be caught out – which benefits the rest of us. This utilitarian principle is attractive in theory, but in practice it is hard to accept state surveillance of innocent citizens on the basis of law enforcement. Moreover, infringing the rights of innocent groups risks marginalizing them – and possibly turning moderates into extremists.
Since Immanuel Kant, most codes of ethics have required principles to be universalizable. In other words, you live your life as you expect others to live theirs; it is morally inconsistent to state that a certain principle is ethical for one person or society but unethical for another. However, while enhanced surveillance of personal communications may be advantageous in democratic societies, the same cannot be said for repressive regimes. So how can we reconcile the need for consistency in our ethical codes with the conviction that autocratic governments of foreign countries shouldn’t be spying on their citizens?
D = decision
Just because a situation is not black and white, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw a line somewhere in the gray.
I think police should have some powers of surveillance over communications data for the sake of effective law enforcement. I accept their authority over me in “real life” in order to keep me, my friends and family safe. So I should accept that the police and government have a certain amount of authority over my online life as well.
On one condition: that everyone involved – police, government, ISPs and consumers – is be absolutely clear on who can see what, when, where, why and how.
We cannot stop foreign governments having the same powers of surveillance over their citizens’ communications – maybe more. But perhaps it is a good thing if dissidents rising up against repressive regimes do not put too much faith in the security of their emails or social media communications.Google+