On March 25th 2009, Government ministers announced they are looking to police private correspondence between users of Facebook. Yes, the growing surveillance bureaucracies of the UK will now be monitoring our social and political activities and associations online, both in real time and storing them on their increasingly sophisticated databases.
The move was rather inevitable. It is simply the latest in the progression of a paranoid, naïve and illiberal political mindset. The Government has tried to justify its plan with claims that leaving our social networking practices alone for private use opens a ‘loophole’ in national security. By identifying this ‘loophole’, the Government reminds us that it has already moved to invade almost every other area of privacy we used to have. In the lead-up to the full unveiling of ID cards and the National Identity Register, the Government has, for example, introduced the Communications Data Bill, which will implement the collection of data on people’s phone, email and web-browsing habits. Just as opponents of the Identity Cards Bill warned and Government spokespeople denied would happen, our freshly state-maintained identities are now being linked with intimate information about our lives, not just things like our name, address and biometrics (wait, that last one’s quite intimate isn’t it?).
But if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. All decent people living in post-war East Germany were happy under the watchful eye of the Stasi. No, no. Surveillance over domestic populations was implemented by totalitarian regimes of the past not only to quickly identify and pursue troublemakers, but also to produce a ‘chilling effect’ over the masses, whereby speech or conduct is suppressed by fear of penalisation, most widely by means of self-censorship.
Particularly with loosening concepts of what a ‘terrorist’ might be, people in Britain will be less inclined to make themselves heard. Protest and activism has been systematically stigmatised by draconian legislation that is enforced by vague, unaccountable policing. Just try peacefully demonstrating in a major city some time and count how many minutes it takes for you to be searched under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act.
Meanwhile, a cultural shift towards panoptical surveillance is being promoted by the Metropolitan Police’s Anti-Terrorist Hotline campaign, which, whether sly or naive, quite straightforwardly represents a campaign of psychological terrorism. One billboard design shows a crowded street with the caption ‘A bomb won’t go off here because weeks before a shopper reported someone studying the CCTV cameras.’ Another suggests that a similar attack was prevented because someone reported on their neighbour’s rubbish having canisters in it. I wonder, what exactly are these scenarios based on, apart from the broadest, murkiest wells of dread?
It’s fairly obvious that proportionate and research-based crime prevention is not the objective here. As John Mueller of Ohio State University concluded in the report, A False Sense Of Insecurity, “For all the attention it evokes, terrorism actually causes rather little damage and the likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is microscopic.” Why, then, are governments now giving so much credit to the terrorists they have emphatically said we must not ‘embolden’?
This Government, or rather the military-industrial complex it nervously protects, has increasingly selfish reasons to try and ‘chill’ us. Elements of the state have been systematically guilty of the same crimes they profess to be trying to prevent: terrorism, both psychological and violent, theft, wiretapping, assault, torture and so on. If these crimes proliferate, so will the public remonstrations and demonstrations.
Much of this will be reflected by, as well as directly spawned by online politicisation and discussion. Social networking sites, not just blogs, will play a big role. Surveillance critics will need to weigh up their relationship with these kinds of sites. When I first joined Facebook, I was uncomfortable with the amount and intimacy of information and withdrew for a while, only to return because I was interested in messaging friends more easily.
Ultimately there is little sense in trying to mark the incivility and intimidation of surveillance culture by boycotting sites like Facebook, just because they are vulnerable to exploitation, as popular websites provide incredibly valuable opportunities for social and political networking.
The kinds of belligerent policies that governments everywhere are doggedly pursuing should politicise rather than marginalise those who are concerned with the way those governments are behaving.