Reading an article on mobile phone surveillance in England, I remembered a scene from the film the Bourne Ultimatum where the character Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, buys a phone off the counter in London and uses it to communicate securely with a reporter. The reporter eventually gets killed and that sadly seems to be the fate of civil liberties and privacy in the UK as well.
As Times Online notes,
Everyone who buys a mobile telephone will be forced to register their identity on a national database under government plans to extend massively the powers of state surveillance. Phone buyers would have to present a passport or other official form of identification at the point of purchase. Privacy campaigners fear it marks the latest government move to create a surveillance society.
Just as with extra-ordinary rendition and Guantanamo in relation to the US, actions such as this have significant repercussions on the freedom of expression in repressive regimes, such as that we find in Sri Lanka. These regimes, ever on the look out for ways to justify their repression and outright violence against democratic dissent and inconvenient truths that embarrass them, often use the argument that Western regimes who criticise them are no better than them.
There is some truth to this assertion. The proposed Data Communications Bill in the UK will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the UK to seriously promote civil liberties and the freedom of expression. If itself becomes what is encourages other democracies to avoid becoming, HMG stands to severely undermine efforts by DFID and other developmental (and conditional aid) efforts, supported by the British public, to strengthen democracy elsewhere in the world. While it is fairly clear now that the British Government does get violent with those who disagree with its policies, it is unclear just how the Government will use information siphoned from the private communications of its citizens against them.
Say for example I was on the CC list of an Al Qaeda spam email that is a sophisticated argument for matrydom. In the interests of my research on countering Islamic radicalisation through ICTs, I forward this to some other colleagues. A lively discussion ensues over email, SMS and voice calls. Under the proposed surveillence regime in the UK, if any one of the recipients was a British citizen living in the UK, does this mark me out as a threat in the data mining algorithms that HMG / MI5 will use to identify embryonic terrorist activity? Will this communication be used against me if I apply for a VISA to the UK? Will I have to pass more stringent customs and border control checks? Will this information be communicated to other intelligence services, or used in conjunction with existing programmes such as Echelon to create profiles that can be matched, discriminated against, sold, exchanged, stored even after death and negatively impact upon my children, friends, colleagues and partners?
There are also serious concerns about the ability of the British Government to actually securely store the information it gathers.
The proposed Data Communications Bill, just as with an issue such as Net Neutrality in the US, are not challenges that are limited to the national boundaries of the UK and US respectively. Their outcomes shape the reality of communications and all that is dependent on it in other countries as well. If the raison d’etre of ICT4Peace is to engender ways through which communications helps peacebuilding, I am yet to be convinced that what the UK is planning on doing will in any way help it combat the root causes of terrorism.