Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was popular to tell jokes about the Stasi, the East German Secret Police, who were obsessed with surveiling their own people. My favourite was:
"Why do ex-Stasi make the best taxi drivers?
Because when you're too drunk to remember your address,
you just have to tell them your name and they'll take you home."
In reality, the Stasi were no laughing matter. They watched everything the citizens of the GDR did. They listening in on telephone calls, monitored where people went, who they talked to, which shops or public buildings they visited, what books they bought, even bugged their homes and encouraged people to inform on their neighbors. In the eighties they were the exemplar of what it would mean to live in a police state.
The recent Draft Investigatory Powers Bill proposed from the British government gives powers and technology that would have made the Stasi green with envy.
If enacted, the Bill would require your Internet Service Provider to hold your Internet Connection Records for a year and make them available to the Police or Security and Intelligence Agencies, without your knowledge. The Bill would also regularise the use of Electronic Interference by Security and Intelligence Agencies to hack your phone, your laptop, your tablet, your digital TV or your GPS linked car.
What this means is that, once the Secretary of State and a Judge from the Investigatory Powers Commission have signed off a warrant, the Security and Intelligence Agencies can use Internet Connection Records to monitor every website or digital service you used from any digital device registered to you: what blogs you read, what movies you watch or books you download, what magazines or newspapers you subscribe to, where you order your groceries from, whether you visited porn sites or gambling sites or Internet dating sites and so on, throughout the last year. Using Electronic Interference they can download software to your phone, TV, tablet or laptop that allows them not only to monitor what you do on the device and where you are doing it but to turn the device into a microphone and or camera and spy on you directly.
This, I'm expected to believe, is not a sign that the UK secret police have out-automated the Stasi and removed any credible online privacy without even having to leave the office, making UK citizens the most surveiled in the world, but rather it is there to protect me from terrorist and pedophiles.
I think privacy is fundamental to identity. A life lived entirely in public lacks authenticity and the possibility of true intimacy. The freedom to be ourselves requires the ability to be unobserved.
I also don't trust my Government (or any other government) to use these powers well. Those with power are always hungry for more. Those who set out to protect the many, feel justified to trample over the rest of us for the greater good.
I think the argument against this loss of privacy is well made in this article "Private Lives And The Digital Panopticon" by Remittance Girl where she makes the case for a private self and a public persona.
A while ago, I wrote a short story called "Assessing Francis Connor" that was meant to be a dystopian view of a near-future Britain. The proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, would make that story seem almost optimistic.
If you live in the UK and you care about these things, don't stay silent. Make a noise... while you still can.