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The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has said reports that GCHQ are gathering intelligence from phones and online sites should not concern people who have nothing to hide. Hague's refusal – on security grounds of course – to either confirm or deny the UK's links with the US Prism secret surveillance programme is a source of further disquiet.
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” has little meaning and offers no real assurance. Respect for the non-public self has nothing to do with 'hiding'. Few of us would care to use a bathroom with glass walls or choose to have our medical records posted on the Parish Council noticeboard.
The uniquely personal interchanges we may make by email or telephone are little different in terms of dignity. Even where – as in the majority of cases – they contain nothing incriminating, we would feel betrayed and demeaned if the language of love and friendship or the pettiness of personal irritations were to be held up for public comment as a result of broad and untargeted surveillance. A joint statement from Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, English PEN and Index on Censorship says such action “chills freedom of expression and undermines our fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy,”
Protestations that any intercepts of such communications would be subject to the governance of a strong legal framework do not command instinctive confidence. There have been too many occasions of humiliating CCTV footage being placed on YouTube by unscrupulous operators to be certain that the law would prevent abuse rather than censure after the event.
But the greatest unease must surely come from the abuses of power which governments commit on a regular basis. No administration is innocent of attempts to conceal facts which it would find damaging or embarrassing. The Freedom of Information Act is not universally popular in the corridors of power and politicians are adept at resisting its provisions – look no further than the Attorney General's overturning of a FoI tribunal's ruling that letters from the Prince of Wales to Government ministers should be made public. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/oct/16/attorney-general-blocks-prince-... )
Ongoing exposure of Government ministers' misuse of statistics or of partial and misleading claims (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18387) have contributed to growing public mistrust of their intentions and public statements. Nor does it seem unreasonable that we might decline to place much confidence in the resilience of governmental technology to criminal hackers, or even to agencies who are not publicly or democratically accountable.
There are no clear definitions of the type and amount of data which foreign agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA), which are outside UK jurisdiction, may actually collect on British citizens, nor are there rules about the use they may make of this data.
The rapid growth of social media and blogging has placed a vast amount of personal data online. Do we know who is scanning this data? An administrative error, a technical failure or an abuse of power could demolish privacy and undermine our employment or citizenship rights.
This is not paranoia, even though bland assurances that the law-abiding have nothing to fear is calculated to make it look that way. Our democratic protections are only as strong as the rectitude and vigilance of the people who design, employ and challenge them. Turkey is a parliamentary democracy and we are seeing peaceful protesters assailed with tear gas and water cannon in its squares and parks.
UK Home Secretary Theresa May is “looking into” the case for making water cannon available to the Metropolitan Police and pre-emptive arrests have been made ahead of the G8 meeting, as they were before the royal wedding and Margaret Thatcher's funeral.
How secure do you feel if you are a member of CND? Or Republic? What if you are an Occupy activist? A supporter of Stop the War, or even of the Society of Friends? None of these are illegal. None advocate violence. But members of all these groups may very well exercise a legitimate and conscientious right to protest which power finds worrying or inconvenient.
Cabinet ministers speak in emollient tones, they smile and invoke our legal protections. Nonetheless, we have very real reasons to fear that the balance between necessary security, privacy and the right to dissent is tilting too far towards the interests of power.
If this was a Tweet rather than a blog post, I would feel inclined to end with *waves to the #NSA*...
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet