There has been much reflection on 2016. It was a pretty terrible year in the fight on mass surveillance, here in the UK particularly with the passing of the Investigatory Powers Act. As Kate Allen of Amnesty International has put it “governments, including the UK, are not far off creating societies in which freedom is the exception and fear the rule”. It’s time for an honest review of why we are where we are, and what to do next in response.
There has been dismay that campaigning made so little impact in 2016, puzzlement that the Snowden revelations have had no significant long term effect on British politics and even anger about apathy. We seem deeply, worryingly, stuck. The reasons why the issue of mass surveillance has become so stuck are, in fact, very simple and boil down to five challenges.
- The big 2 Westminster political parties support bulk surveillance.
- MPs don’t think mass surveillance is a seat threatening issue.
- The media environment has been immensely challenging and continues to be so.
- Past legal victories have not impacted practice or legislation.
- Concerns about terrorism / crime weigh heavier on the public than concerns about privacy.
I’ve sketched out a roadmap of some ways forward that address these challenges. It’s a roadmap in that not all of the points are solutions, they are areas to attack and directions of travel. It’s important to say that I don’t see all these points can be covered by any one organisation or even one movement, let alone any individual. Some of these suggestions will be uninteresting, even unpalatable to any one individual. That’s fine. Work with what you think is right.
What I am asking for is a variety of approaches. It’s time to get away from getting stuck, and there are in fact many options for moving forward.
Roadmap – A New Way Forward on Mass Surveillance
Remake “Don’t Spy on Us”
It was a sound decision for NGOs to pool resources on what was always going to be a difficult fight on the Investigatory Powers bill. It produced much good work and included input from some of the world’s leading experts on investigatory powers. However it can’t be regarded as a campaigning success. Many people were expecting way more than it was ever able to reasonably be expected to deliver under the form it took. The basic idea is right, it just needs refocusing.
Make the remit and goals clear
There was confusion over what Don’t Spy On US (DSOU) was and what it wanted to achieve. The new situation gives an opportunity to clarify that. Some NGOs may well have been nervous about losing their identity in a broad coalition, they should resolve branding / identity issues for themselves and communicate this clearly to the public.
Broaden the coalition
For greater impact there needs to be broader input and support. A new coalition should ideally include business, unions, and political organisations as well as more NGOs.
Make it clear how to engage
DSOU had a very minimal presence when it came to any way the public could come in to dialogue with it. It needs to be clear if dialogue with the public is wanted, and if so, how.
Establish identifiable leadership
Even if DSOU, or any successor, is a time-limited coalition it would benefit from clear national campaign leadership and an identifiable public face. That leader should be politically focused, media friendly and have a bold presence.
Rename and rebrand
Having lead something called the Pirate Party I am a world expert in names that are right and eye-catching at the outset, yet less helpful further down the line. Any communications expert will tell you that you shouldn’t brand your organisation or campaign on what it isn’t- in this case what we don’t want to happen. A rebrand is in order and will help revitalise the campaign.
Change the Politics
Until political thinking changes on this issue more generally, we can progress no further however many legal challenges there are, particularly post-Brexit. The goal must be first to find new voices to champion privacy in parliament, then to shift policy. This will require both working from within and pressure from outside.
Work across dividing lines
It’s clear to make headway on mass surveillance we have to work across party lines and different backgrounds. Progressives and conservatives who share concerns about a surveillance state remain quite isolated from one another.
As far as is possible, we have to lay aside past political beefs and encourage others to do so. It is the case that all the parties of Westminster government have been involved in the mass surveillance state, this includes the Liberal Democrats. But it is not helpful to dwell on the past, we need to encourage change for the future. That does not mean not being critical, it means not making the surveillance issue just another weapon in tribal warfare.
Find new front figures
We need to acknowledge that we have lost many of our most powerful advocates. David Davis is wrestling the octopus of Brexit. Tom Watson is dealing with the soap opera that is the Labour party. Baroness Chakrabarti is, sad to say, irretrievably politically damaged. We need to nurture new figures with a broad public presence.
Anticipate new surveillance issues and how they impact politics
The fight is not confined to state surveillance or dealing with current legislation. New challenges will continue to open up, and we must seek ways to engage politicians and activists with them on their terms as well as ours. For example surveillance through “workplace wearables” ought to be of concern to anyone within the Labour movement. We should draw the connections from those concerns to state surveillance.
Recognise the wider political context
There is an odd sense that the surveillance issue has got stuck down the back of the sofa of politics right now. Much of the discussion has been dominated by technical and legal concerns. We need to recognise that politicians, the media and the public alike see issues in a broad context. This affects how they see the surveillance capability issue, most obviously in relation to security. We must assess the ever changing picture, for example the current news focus on alleged Russian hacking means that liberals may come to see equipment interference in an entirely different light.
Have a Brexit Plan
Despite ongoing opposition, the UK is now set to leave the EU. It is already clear Brexit will have an impact, and will not remove the CJEU entirely from from the equation of UK surveillance law, given that other EU countries will insist on data protection compliance. It’s vital that we address this to avoid a Safe Harbour style challenge which would be disastrous for British business. So however painful this may be for many, we will need to envision what a pro-privacy Brexit looks like. What we can not do is expect the CJEU to win our arguments for us in the current political climate. I’m not telling those of you who want to fight tooth and nail for the CJEU to stop, I’m just saying others will need to come up with a strategy that recognises what are the most likely scenarios given Theresa May’s declared position.
Work up a New Communications Strategy
The surveillance issue very much vanished down the media agenda during 2016. There was also an assumption amongst many activists that the Snowden revelations had permanently moved opinion, rather than being just one story in a complex picture. A new strategy is needed.
Address the ‘noise’ problem
The Investigatory Powers bill campaign was a major casualty of the EU referendum which could not have been timed worse. There was also an assumption that it would be business as usual post June 2016. This of course was not the case, nor will it be for the foreseeable future with President Trump. If there was an easy answer to this, the whole world would like to know about it right now. The first step is realise that the media ‘noise’ level has risen to an extent to which even a new Snowden type event would have trouble breaking through. Each step needs to be examined as to what the compelling news hook is, simply reiterating that the government is doing another draconian thing in is not working.
Counter soft power
The media and public push through 2016 for new investigatory powers and promoting the intelligence agencies was not a hard edged attack, it was soft power. There were gentle pieces in the Times, a Today programme interview for Andrew Parker, the GCHQ Twitter account, puzzles, books, event sponsorship. No counter to this was given from campaigners. A response must be formulated, and should include robust push back on, for example, event sponsorship.
Produce more material shareable online
For a movement that is supposedly Internet savvy the online and social media presence has been surprisingly low key and unimaginative. Way more output is needed even on the basic level of shareable content, let alone campaigns which inspire deeper interaction.
Articulate why privacy matters
As campaigners we have had trouble articulating why the issue of privacy matters at all in any urgent way. The public at large do not see any threatening real life consequence. Someone possibly reading your email is simply not the same as possibly dying in pain alone on a trolley in an NHS hospital corridor. The leap needs to be made from someone may read your email and then what?
Boost Grassroots Involvement
2016 demonstrated that the privacy movement lacks both depth and breadth. There were simply not the numbers or diversity of support to mount a really credible challenge and put real pressure on MPs.
Forge new links
Effort needs to be made to broaden the connections and perspectives of the movement, links should be made to community campaigners, unions, student groups, churches, mosques, really anywhere people gather.
Rebuild core support
That said, there was a noticeable dwindling of even core support during 2016 from those passionate about civil liberties and digital rights. This was as already said due to the wider political situation, but also there were very few opportunities offered for action from core supporters. More than anything morale needs to be rebuilt and a political way forward that offers some hope of success set out.
There is a particular problem that needs addressing which is that many of those most passionate about privacy as an issue also ignore the most public platforms like Facebook for the very reason of their passion on the issue. Much in depth discussion happens in a way that is invisible to a broad public, at the very least intermediaries need to be found.
Promote diversity in the movement
A lack of diversity in the privacy movement, particularly when it comes to BME advocates harms the ability to build a broad coalition and address specific issues. The security services have been way more proactive, as sponsors of the National Diversity Awards for example. LGBT recruitment has been promoted by GCHQ, it will take LGBT voices to counter this use of soft power.
Produce quality accessible material in volume
Grassroots campaigning needs material to support it, for example there were simply no easily available accessible leaflets to distribute during the IP bill passage. Similarly we need online material which is “entry level” for the issues, and makes sense of the ongoing passage of a bill.
Promote training and support
Grassroots campaigning also needs practical support, inspiration and morale boosting.
One of the most striking things about the petition to parliament to repeal the Investigatory Powers Act was the distribution of the signatures. Bristol West, Brighton Pavillion, Cambridge, Edinburgh North and Leith, Glasgow Central and Manchester Central constituencies all have more signatures than any London constituency (at the time of writing). Campaigning should capitalise on that, and it means a radical rethink of where the “centre” is.
Form a “northern privacy powerhouse” network
The north of England has some clear pockets where activism has been high on surveillance, notably Manchester and Sheffield. Activists in these cities are better placed physically and temperamentally to help other northern campaigners than leads from London. There should be an activist shadow to Tech North, bringing together stakeholders. Privacy should be placed on the agenda for city region elections and governance.
Form a Scottish ‘Don’t Spy On Us’
It’s stating the obvious to point out that the political culture of Scotland is now utterly different to England. However that doesn’t seem acknowledged by the campaign, despite there being excellent Scottish NGOs. Also there are specific questions for Scotland to address given that Scottish ministers have intercept powers. A distinct Scottish DSOU should address these questions, campaign targeting Holyrood and Westminster alike and capitalise on the different mood in Scotland.
The petition exposed some notable patterns. For the first time some “surveillance marginal” constituencies have emerged. In Cambridge, more people signed the petition than Labour MP Daniel Zeichner’s majority. It is not as simple to say that translates directly to a loss, but it shows a notable vulnerability. The most remarkable data from the petition was Bristol West being the most IP Act unfriendly seat, where the Green party came second to Labour. A similarity to Brighton Pavillion can be demonstrated which should also be used to concentrate Labour’s mind.
The civil liberties and technical arguments have been made very comprehensively and the path is in fact well trodden. These arguments are simply not shifting political opinion in the way we need. New approaches are needed, and in particular the effect on business should be more foregrounded and better articulated.
Equally the choices businesses make about their products and services impact privacy and data retention. We should be working with companies to support and promote ethical choices.
Make a robust assessment of impact of surveillance legislation on business
We need a robust impact assessment in terms of projected costs, liabilities and potential future threats to business and the economy due to direct burdens and changed sentiment about the UK as a place to do digital business or share any kind of data.
This impact needs to be shared with companies and bodies promoting the digital economy to broaden the number and type of businesses who are willing to be proactive in speaking up for privacy. They in turn should be supported in communicating with politicians.
Make this a ‘safe area’ for business to comment on
Businesses may well feel intercept legislation may well be too controversial an area to comment on, let alone be advocating in. The fears are obvious, being painted as ‘pro-terrorist’ with little obvious upside in terms of boosting business. Briefing and communications support should be offered to companies, and clear business incentives laid out.
Rediscover a Radical Edge
The surveillance issue naturally appeals to people sceptical about MPs, judges and authority in general. However, the calls to action have been focused on dry activities that are about interacting with the powers that be – writing to MPs, making submissions to parliamentary committees, backing legal challenges. The campaign, or elements of it, needs to rediscover a radical edge.
This may seem a potential contradiction with the above, but different approaches are valid.
Find room for a radical voice
There is room for a voice that is positioned between NGOs and Anonymous . This will give room for people who really don’t feel at home going to MPs surgeries or writing polite emails. In these febrile times there is power to be found in harnessing the energy of the ‘fuck you’ attitude too.
Rediscover and reinvent protest
One element that was missing from campaigning in 2016 was protest. In of itself, one protest doesn’t change minds – the Iraq War shows that. But it is an important factor in motivating and bringing together campaigners, and to make messages clear. It need not be an old-fashioned march, think of the SOPA site blackout for example.
Use imagination in campaigning and messaging
The feel of messaging and how the political parties approach surveillance has become very staid and formulaic. There is room for the provocative, the quirky, the humorous, even occasionally the downright obnoxious.
Articulate a Pro-Privacy Security Policy
The biggest Achilles heel of privacy advocates is that we are best at saying what we don’t want to happen. We have to accept that as a nation we do have to take security seriously. To suggest that terrorism is not really that big a deal, which happens frequently, is as irresponsible as it is emotionally obtuse.
Initiate a policy creation process
If we wish to set aside the Investigatory Powers Act we need to decide what comes next. This should be part of a policy creation process that examines what a secure and peaceful world looks like more broadly, taking in for example international negotiation and agreement on cyber defence / offence.
It is not really reasonable to expect human rights NGOs to lead this process, as it could cause conflict with their membership/ support and muddy messaging. This is a think tank type task, but it does need broad engagement in the security community.
Find credible front figures and advisers
It is fair to say that many people who are critical of broad intercept powers are often critical from a security perspective. The most common argument is the “you are making more haystacks to find the needle” one. The trouble is that this has been coming almost exclusively from people who have no experience of needle finding. More experienced and credible spokespeople who can comment from a security perspective are urgently needed.
Cultivate international links
This challenge is not peculiar to the UK, and is best done in partnership with international organisations.
This should be plenty to be going on with. Time to get unstuck.