What if someone told you they had all of your passwords, private conversations, pictures and secrets in their pocket?
Even if you aren’t a computer programmer or a tech whizz, you’ll be aware, on some level, that online security and surveillance is a huge issue in today’s society.
All of your WhatsApp conversations about who was the drunkest down the pub last night are now encrypted to avoid tampering, and what Facebook can do with your holiday photos and heartfelt birthday messages is suddenly openly discussed, instead of being changed without your knowledge.
But there are powerful people who have permission to source and store every element of your online activity.
So what exactly are they doing with it? And is this practice in our collective best interests, or not?
Here, journalist and one of the brains behind in-depth investigative documentary The Haystack, Olivia Cappuccini, explains why social media surveillance should be a concern for everyone, starting with the elusive but all-important Investigatory Powers Bill.
So what’s this Investigatory Powers Bill all about?
“The IP Bill is a new piece of legislation that outlines the use, extent and framework of the investigatory powers that law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies have access to. There are bits of the current legislation that are going to expire this year, so the government are working hard and fast to make sure we have a new bill that will allow authorities to continue their work and have access to even more powers.
“When we talk about powers, we mean the collection, retention and analysis of data in the form of phone calls, emails, search history, unencrypted texts – essentially most, if not all, digital communications.”
Should I read it, then?
“Read it? No – definitely don’t read it. The bill is 329 pages long and is very elusive in its terminology, describing the use of most of these powers as a necessity based on ‘national security’. We spent six months making The Haystack documentary and we still can’t make sense of everything in there.”
But isn’t government surveillance for my protection, rather than to keep tabs on me?
“Yes, of course it’s for our protection, and some of these powers are definitely needed. However, what’s become very clear is that the full extent of such powers have not been proven to prevent terrorism, cyber-crime, paedophilia and so on anywhere in the world.
“No operational case has been made, so why then should we be willing to give up our human rights – the right to privacy and civil liberties – for something we can’t guarantee is going to protect us?
“What this IP Bill will allow is the retention of all of our digital communications for up to a year. If you’re an activist, a journalist, a lawyer, or in any position that appears to challenge authority in any way, this data could come in handy, should the government ever need it to build a case against you.
“The government have used data before in such instances, and now that the IP Bill will legalise this activity – the whole process will become easier.”
Should I be worried about my social media activity being monitored?
“It’s really not about that – we just need to become a little bit more educated, and question which companies have our data, what type of data they have, and where it ends up.
“A great analogy used in The Haystack by a privacy expert is: ‘What if I were to tell you I had all of your passwords, very private conversations, pictures and secrets in my breast pocket? I’m not going to use them for anything, but they’re just sitting there in my breast pocket. How would that make you feel?’ This, for me, was very powerful.
“There’s no point in scaremongering and saying ‘The government is spying on you – watch out!’ The point is that they have access to all your data at their fingertips. They can pull up all your social media activity and paint a very specific picture of you, without you even knowing or being able to defend yourself. And they can do all of this under the name of ‘national security’.”
Can I really get in trouble for something I post online, though?
“If any of us were to make political statements online, couldn’t this pose questions and be a risk to national security, if framed in a specific way? Does that make you a victim or a suspect?
Should we not be allowed to say what we believe? And what about who we choose to spend time with? If we have a set of friends with very specific beliefs and attitudes, is it right that I might be pulled in as a suspect just because my digital communications link to my friends?”
Okay, I’m hooked. How can I learn more about online surveillance?
“Watch The Haystack. Our company, Scenes of Reason, is dedicated to breaking down these kinds of dense political and social issues in a super engaging and accessible way.
“If you’re still keen to know more after watching, look up a brilliant organisation called Privacy International. They’ve been created to champion the fight for our privacy all over the world, and have taken our government and intelligence agencies to court numerous times. They know what they’re doing, and – thankfully – they aren’t going anywhere.”
I feel really strongly about this. How can I speak up and be heard?
“There are so many brilliant organisations, but you can join the Open Rights Group, who have bases all over the country. It’s a members club who meet regularly, and have created a community to enable these types of conversations and debates to thrive.”
Want to learn more? You can watch The Haystack in full online, or head along to a special Edinburgh screening and panel, hosted by The Ferret on Tue 5 Jul – more info
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Main image: Denis Charlet /AFP/ Getty Images