The United Nations’ head of privacy described it as “worse than scary.” Former CIA employee, responsible for one of the biggest leaks in American’s history, Edward Snowden called it the “most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West.” Apple’s chief executive has warned it could have “very dire consequences.”
Meet the UK Government’s alarming new privacy laws. Some of the people they’ll have a huge impact on? People of colour. In a country where they’re likely to be branded suspects simply because of the colour of their skin, people from minority ethnic communities have a good reason to be alarmed by the state giving itself more powers to spy on citizens.
Earlier this month, Home Secretary Theresa May released details of her draft Investigatory Powers Bill. Set to replace its earlier 2014 incarnation, this bill amounts to a total overhaul of the laws dictating how the state can collect citizens’ data. Although she had rolled back on a number of sinister ideas, the Home Secretary is pushing ahead with her obsessive campaign to give the police and security services the power to access to everyone’s internet history. Internet and phone companies will make records of your communications data and keep them for 12 months, this private information will be free reading for state officials and perhaps most gallingly, they’ll be able to take a look at your records without any proper judicial check. Your private information will become public property and there will be no robust judicial process to protect it.
The new bill extends current Orwellian powers; it includes a statute which would make it legal for MI5, GCHQ and MI6 to use “equipment interference powers”: or put otherwise, the power to carry out computer and phone hacking around the world. This is a fundamental invasion of privacy and puts a huge amount of power into the hands of a worryingly small number of individuals. Not to mention that experts have warned that this will be open to data breaches; keep all this private, sensitive information in one place and you’re opening yourself up to be targeted.
But this is no new trend in the UK. Despite revelations of the huge-scale mass surveillance carried out by GCHQ and the NSA, unleashed by Snowden in 2013, the Government’s surveillance capabilities have been steadily on the rise in the past three years. The state’s tentacles now reach into all crevices of modern communication, tracking and keeping information on citizens. As history will teach us, these powers could be abused used to spy on anyone who questions the state: trade unions, political activists, and MPs to name a few.
Among – and in – these groups, people of colour will be near the top of the list. They’re considered terror suspects for simply walking down the street; the shooting of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, the disproportionate use of stop and search on Black and Asian people and the Islamophobic Prevent strategy all serve as chilling reminders of this.
These new laws legitimizing mass surveillance will make discrimination even easier. It will be more acceptable for white people to Google to their hearts content without being suspected of crime than it will be for their minority ethnic counterparts. It’s more likely that every virtual move they make will be under scrutiny than if their skin were a different colour. In the US, a Muslim boy brought a home-made clock into school and was suspected of being a terrorist, imagine how this will manifest itself in the online world, when every click of the button can be interpreted however your tracker likes.
Mass surveillance is often abused; it can quickly slip into targeted spying. Look across the Atlantic and the impact surveillance powers are having on people of colour is worrying indeed: the NSA spied on five “distinguished Muslim-Americans” using a law meant for international terrorists. It’s not a huge leap to suggest that they were on a list of 7,000 suspects because they were Muslims who had power. It’s very possible then, that mass surveillance will help targeted surveillance on its racist path.
May claims ‘lives are at risk’ and her new snooping laws will protect them. Of little importance are the lives and freedoms threatened by clamping down on civil liberties. These new powers will affect everyone but they should set off alarm bells in already marginalised communities. These powers could easily be abused to carry out targeted spying on people considered suspicious, or those who question state authority. In these categories, people of colour are likely to be even higher up the list. It’s not hard to write this future before it happens.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow
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