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The state of mass surveillance

The state of mass surveillance

UK Surveillance

Surveillance, in all its forms, has become an established part of life in today’s modern society. From terrorist groups to politicians, activists to extremists, it has become a go-to tool for tracking human beings. Sometimes justified, other times not, it remains one of the most controversial subjects. 

CCTV watches us from the corners of buildings, above roads, in and out of shops, offices and stadiums. Online, it tracks what sites you visit, the comments you make about who and what. It might even know a lot more about you than you might consider reasonable. One cannot help but wonder how that information is used. 

Algorithms track internet users every second in order to send ads. Search-engines divert you down certain paths. Advancements in technology mean that surveillance has had to up its game, too. With every terrorist attack comes a government’s demand to access more and more of our private daily activity, including messaging apps. Is this a fair price for security? Are our freedoms really at stake? Are we able to hold accountable those who think they are above the law? Who watches the watchers?

Indeed, surveillance has become a dirty word. It implies interference rather than watchfulness. After the revelations by Edward Snowden, citizens have kept a wary eye on their governments. People simply do not trust the government or other agencies to behave correctly when it comes to spying on the people, creating a certain level of paranoia. Surveillance might not be a hindrance but the data that is gathered and its purpose remains questionable. 

According to the British Security Industry Association, there are between 4 million and 5.9 million CCTV cameras operating in the UK. Even this is disputable since the number comes from 2013 and there is no government record of exactly how many there are. The number of times an individual might be recorded on camera every day varies between 70 to 300, depending on which media outlet you happen to visit, which is also recorded. 


With over 420,000 CCTV cameras in use, London is the second most-watched city in the world, after Beijing (470,000 CCTV cameras). Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR) software was tested between 2016 to 2018 at London’s Kings Cross station as well as shopping centres in Manchester and Sheffield and a museum in Liverpool. While this surveillance technique was used to track wanted criminals and offenders, the information was nonetheless stored. 

A recent report showed that the Kings Cross operation ran without any apparent oversight by the Metropolitan Police and several images were handed over to the station’s owners for crime prevention. However, since the AFR operation was discontinued, it is uncertain how these images might be used. In Wales earlier this year, a legal case brought against the police was lost after it was ruled that the use of AFR was legal, despite the case insisting that innocent people were having their images gathered. 

The Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 became law with only a token of resistance. There were public demonstrations but the government was never really to account by the media or political establishment. After an initial rejection, the UK government accepted amendments made by a joint committee that scrutinised the bill. The vote passed 281 to 15 after the Labour Party and Scottish National Party abstained. 

The act, nicknamed the ‘Snoopers Charter’, went through, legalising a wide range of tools that could be utilised by law enforcement with little or no accountability. The ability of intelligence agencies to analyse and monitor the public’s communications became unprecedented. For the first time, the powers that these agencies had was clearly listed but only the Investigatory Powers Tribunal listens to complaints against any of these agencies. The Snoopers Charter enabled the intelligence services to hack into any computer or communication device, giving them access to any stored data, even if that person is considered innocent. 

This sets the tone for the continued debate over surveillance, which is essentially between security and privacy. Before the Investigatory Powers Act came to be, the intelligence agencies were ruled to have illegally collected personal data but the Act made sure that law protected any further actions. 

While there are undoubtedly those who do care about how data is handled, the priority of the agencies will always be security and so the willingness to sacrifice privacy increases in light of terrorist attacks. The desire by governments to have a backdoor to communications platforms, like WhatsApp, is understandable when trying to fight terrorism but of concern to the public. If they have access, who can be certain that such access won’t be loaned or provided to other groups or governments?

UK courts ruled the Investigatory Powers Act as violating EU laws in April 2018. The resulting Data Retention and Acquisition Regulations 2018, in force by October 2018, addressed this violation by determining that access to communication data was only permitted for serious crimes. This could well change when the UK leaves the EU, allowing the UK government to impose the original terms of the Investigatory Powers Act. So where does this leave the current state of surveillance?

Austerity reduced the number of police on the streets, resulting in less attention paid to crimes like pickpocketing and petty theft. This led to the increase in software and systems created to combat such problems. Once such example is Facewatch; a civilian fast-track crime-reporting platform. The user can upload an incident report, which has details and CCTV footage. Those faces on the footage can then be matched with other footage history stored on the same software. This then enables the users, in whichever business they work, to recognise thieves operating in their businesses. 

Such software will continue to flourish but in the private sector. This leaves the problem of regulating an area of surveillance where information is passed between civilians rather than law enforcement, possibly leading to civilians taking the law into their own hands. 

Surveillance will continue to increase as the number of activist groups also increases. Organisations, like Extinction Rebellion, are considered a threat to the authority of government. As climate change, social injustice and poverty, to name just a few of today’s issues, gain traction, law enforcement will want more information about their actions. Yet there is always the added complication of law enforcement being complicit in targeting individuals or groups for the benefit of a government’s political agenda, diminishing democratic rights. 

The surveillance industry is not under control and it is not held to account. Numerous companies produce software that deliberately circumvents civil liberties but the business model seems to be more about saying sorry when getting caught instead of asking whether it is morally right in the first place. Surveillance has become an issue for everyone and people feel compelled to restrict their actions. It should be wrong for the public to have to behave in a certain way to protect themselves from unwanted police attention. 

Beyond the debate between privacy and security lies the simple question of trust. The public trusts the government to protect it but repeatedly, governments have a habit of doing something that loses them trust. Whether it is storing bulk data on its citizens or wanting to read all communications, everything seems to come with an ominous undertone, a suspicion of an ulterior motive. 

There is no doubt that governments need to do more to reassure its public that its actions are genuine but this continues to be hard. Considering what we now know about GCHQ, Prism and all the other surveillance programmes, it is hardly surprising that there are those who argue that the government tends to misuse its powers. When a government is willing to let private healthcare firms view NHS data or pass on communications information regarding its own citizens, there is no trust in the system. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement must be allowed to do their jobs but oversight and scrutiny must be allowed to work, not held up by loopholes. There must cease to be a difference between protecting society and protecting human rights and privacy. That starts with trusting each other and our government.

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