Surveillance in Society: Are We Living in a Big Brother State?

In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell predicts a dystopian, totalitarian state where thoughts, actions and speech are under constant scrutiny. Paranoia and self-consciousness are rife, freedom obsolete. This idea was terrifying but ultimately absurd, an over-exaggerated metaphor to emphasise the suffocating effects that government control could have. However, with the recent governmental plans to monitor web and telephone usage in order to target acts of crime and terrorism soon to be enforced, is Britain stepping ever closer to observing its inhabitants’ every move? And as a result, is this increased surveillance really helping to protect us or is it merely an infringement of the common man’s right to privacy?

The Prime Minister insists that increased web and telephone surveillance does not equate to an invasion of privacy; content would not be monitored without an intercept warrant issued by the Home Secretary, but observing who is spoken to and what websites are being visited is a necessary compromise in order to fill “significant gaps in our defences”, such as those created by communication via online services like Skype: “No one is talking about changing the rules and snooping into the content of somebody’s telephone calls or emails…all we’re talking about here is making sure we’re keeping up with technology. We have always been able to see who people are contacting through phone calls.”

Nevertheless, the plans have been criticised by others, including Conservative backbenchers, as being “an unnecessary extension of the ability of the State to snoop on ordinary people”. Letter responses from the general public to The Independent have derided the plans as futile, remarking that “terrorists will undoubtedly use coded exchanges” anyway, and that these plans reject the “innocent until proven guilty” ideology in favour of “treating everyone as a guilty suspect”. David Cameron responded to criticisms by stating that it is an important and necessary role of the Government to keep our country safe.

Admittedly, he makes a valid point. What does it matter if our communication and viewing activity is monitored if it is in aid of protecting us from far greater threats than the invasion of our privacy? Why should we lose sleep over our civil liberties being slightly compromised if it means that our physical safety can be better ensured by reducing the opportunities for terrorism?  If we have nothing to hide, then surely we shouldn’t be fretting about the consequences of our actions.

To delve further into the benefits of surveillance, Impact spoke to Rob Nash, Nottingham University’s Crime Prevention Officer, to investigate the use of CCTV on campus. Rob told us that there are 329 cameras in total covering all the Nottingham University campuses, 11 of which reside in Hallward Library. When asked about the purpose of having so many cameras on campus, he explained: “It is for the benefit of our students and it is all for that. It’s quite important that people realise that the reason that we do it is not because we want to spy on people.”

He went on to explain how student privacy is maintained; “Student [bedroom] windows are blocked out, so we’re certainly not intrusive.” It was also made clear that footage is not watched live, but only watched back if a suspicious incident is reported. CCTV on campus is able to limit student-targeted crimes such as bicycle and laptop theft, and monitors and controls traffic into and out of the University on open days and graduation.

Impact also spoke to the University’s Security & Compliance Group Leader for IT services, Paul Kennedy. When questioned on the extent to which students’ online activity is currently being monitored, he told us:

“In most cases, the information is just logged so it can be reviewed later if there is an issue. The monitoring we perform is subject to legal controls (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act).  We also have an obligation to consider the right to privacy within the Human Rights Act when deciding what to monitor or log.  Our policy only allows us to use the information collected to investigate misconduct or criminal activity, so we can’t use it to monitor otherwise legitimate computer activity.” The benefits are also evident: “We’ve dealt with things like bullying and harassment at the lower end of the scale and fraud at the more serious end.”

The positives of monitoring campus activity to a reasonable extent are therefore clear; however, if taken too far, it would be seen as a serious infringement of our liberties. Privacy is a cherished and sacred thing to the people of Britain; we see it as our right, as depicted by said Human Rights Act, which guarantees us “the right to a private life”. However, the newly reformed Coroner’s and Justice Act allows ministers to disclose any personal information to a third party; clearly a breach of the aforementioned Human Rights Act.

It would be foolish to insist that heightened levels of surveillance are not going to feed an age already fuelled by cyber-paranoia, and that the ‘guilty before charged’ ideology does not exist. An example of this can be taken from our very own university: in 2008, an Al-Quaeda Training Manual was discovered on the computer of Hicham Yezza, a junior administrator in the School of Modern Languages. A concerned colleague stumbled across the manual and then flagged it up to senior managers; the police were then contacted to conduct an investigation. It was later revealed that MA student, Rizwaan Sabir, had asked the administrator to print the manual for him for research purposes. However, both individuals were held under arrest for six days, for fear that they may have been involved in a terrorist plot. In 2011, lecturer Dr Rod Thornton wrote an article criticising the University’s treatment of the student, and was then himself suspended. His suspension triggered an international outcry for him to be reinstated. A case such as this is representative of this ‘guilty before charged’ ideology; in a panicked frenzy to safeguard their name, the University did not take the time to consider the reasons behind Sabir and Yezza’s actions, nor the opinions of Dr Thornton.

Sabir’s intentions were purely educational; yet he was declared guilty before being given a chance to defend his actions. Similarly, with Thornton, his freedom of speech was compromised in an attempt to limit the amount of controversy and trouble created for the University. The possibility of intercept warrants being used to potentially read the content of messages means that paranoia about online and telephone communication is sure to rise and hence verbal freedom will inevitably be inhibited.

Pre-emptive security measures can of course be valuable; it can be hard to distinguish whether something is “legitimate computer activity” or not, so it is often safer to fully investigate it. It is the method of investigation itself that determines whether somebody is being discriminated against unjustly; if they are not given the opportunity to defend themselves then surveillance is being used in an intrusive rather than a beneficial way.

Ultimately – as depicted by the University’s surveillance facilities – CCTV and online monitoring are significant factors in reducing student-targeted crimes. Yet, despite benefits, heightened and constant paranoia means that we may inevitably start to pay a lot more attention to what we say, lest we spark controversy and trouble, which removes an element of our liberty. Orwell’s ‘thoughtcrime’ might not be as far-fetched as we think.

Sarah Dawood

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