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[Op-Ed] Policing With Consent Would Require Throwing Away Our Freedoms

BY Guðjón Idir | Wednesday, October 8 2014

Keith Bristow, Director of the UK's National Crime Agency, asks the public to agree to more surveillance (Chatham House/flickr)

Alarmingly, Keith Bristow, Director of the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), also known as Britain’s FBI, made a call to the public on Monday to obtain their consent to increase the surveillance capabilities of the state, and thus reduce their digital freedoms in return for more robust protections from organized cybercrime and terrorism.

In an interview with Guardian journalist Vikram Dodd, Bristow explained that the current effort to curtail cybercrime is not keeping up with the times. He justifies expanding NCA’s powers by arguing the collection and use of data would be done “in an appropriate and proportionate way.” Further, he appealed to the public and asked for their support, calling such a move, “policing by consent.” Not only are Bristow’s arguments based on fear mongering, but supporting legislation such as the Draft Communications and Data Bill (aka Snooper’s Charter) is not a guarantee for keeping the nation safe –- only eroding freedom of information and expression.

It might appear that Bristow’s steadfast plea for the public’s consent is a favorable change in policy. It is not. The public should always worry when an agency that worked tirelessly to keep things under wraps suddenly feels the urge to be transparent. If an agency such as the NCA were to truly embrace openness, it would first apologize and then admit that it really did collect the public’s data, monitored communications and that these tactics are wholly undemocratic and repressive.

Edward Snowden’s leaks unmasked the global surveillance activities of the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States: that their bulk collection of data and the erosion of privacy did nothing to help national security. The NSA’s activities were neither appropriate nor proportional. They were, in fact way off balance. A study by the New America foundation found that bulk collection of phone metadata has had no noticeable effect in preventing terrorist acts. National Security has become a guise for surveillance that neither makes us safer nor stronger, only less free.

Bristow claims that Snowden’s revelations have eroded the public’s trust in law enforcement to use and collect data when in fact, the public has lost faith in law enforcement, full stop. Snowden’s leaks proved that the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lied last year when he told Congress that the NSA was not collecting American phone records. He now admits that he was “clearly erroneous.” Now it appears that in an effort to regain the public’s trust in the government’s intelligence agencies, British authorities think it is appropriate to ask the public to voluntarily surrender some of their freedoms.

Is the government testing the waters to see if the public really cares about our digital freedoms and our privacy? Is it counting on our naivety -- that we are a collection of people with a nothing-to-hide attitude and so therefore, are blind to the overarching issues at play?

Surveillance has already done enough damage. In addition to eroding trust in government institutions, surveillance has led to an erosion of free speech. A study last year by PEN revealed that surveillance has an overall chilling effect and causes writers to self-censor. When writers assume their communications are being monitored, they are less likely to express themselves on certain subjects. They are also less likely to conduct research into sensitive subjects. This self-censorship also extends to communications with friends and sources. When there is a lack of free speech and the expression of diverse opinions, it will eventually lead to disillusion and apathy.

The public needs to become an active stakeholder, an active participant in this debate about national security. Expressing an opinion on this issue does not require expertise and such an argument would only serve as a sinister attempt to preempt debate. Freedom of information and expression are at stake. The tools we use to formulate our opinions and that the press uses to communicate with sources –- the Internet and other communication technologies –- need to remain free from mass surveillance.

Given our governments' history of listening in on the conversations of reporters, even greater surveillance powers will give them access to sources and whistleblowers that need protection. Without strong measures to protect our sources, potential whistleblowers may feel unsafe to speak out and in effect, make the media less effective. And without whistleblowers and a free press, this debate about mass surveillance would have never begun at all.

Guðjón Idir is the Executive Director of the Icelandic Modern Media Institute (IMMI), an organization that takes an innovative legislative approach to bolstering their country's freedom of information, expression, speech and privacy laws.