In June 2013, The Guardian revealed explosive documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that set out the details of worldwide surveillance dragnets led by the USA and its partner the United Kingdom.
For some veteran activists the revelations were not quite as surprising as they might have been for the rest of us.
Instead the Snowden files served as an unfortunate validation that confirmed their fears and suspicions: technology was not liberating us. It was being used by nations and corporations to ensnare and monitor us to a greater degree.
Decades ago, NGOs began to emerge with concerns about an increasingly authoritarian approach to civil liberties.
By the early-mid 2000s, Britain was dressed with CCTV cameras. The Labour party was pushing for mandatory country-wide ID cards, with crime and the decade-defining war on terror providing the justification.
At the same time ‘web 2.0’ was gaining steam. New social networks like Facebook were entering a period of rapid growth, and user-generated content was becoming the new normal. Google started its quick swell from search engine of choice to IPO to the colossus it is today. Our world was, evidently, becoming more driven by digital data.
Now, just under two years since the Snowden leaks, the public are more aware than ever before on privacy and data. But a well-worn narrative – “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” – has risen along with that consciousness.
And despite the well-documented existing powers of the intelligence agencies, the Conservative government in Britain is determined to push through the controversial Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, colloquially called the ‘Snooper’s Charter’.
So it has been a long slog for the groups that are fighting for digital rights and privacy, in both the physical and digital realms.
These NGOs are enduring the laborious but necessary clerical work surrounding policy, challenging the state-led security narrative, and placing political pressure onto authorities in the UK – the most surveilled state on the planet.
Techworld spoke to some of the individuals and organisations undergoing the mammoth task of a fightback, the groups taking on the twin powers of state surveillance and corporate muscle.
Anti-censorship protests in Turkey, 2011. Image: Özgür Elbir / Flickr
Harmit Kambo – campaigns director
Privacy International was founded 26 years ago when the internet was barely a footnote in our everyday lives. Campaigns director Harmit Kambo tells Techworld the organisation recognised, even back then, that with increasing technological sophistication there were going to be greater threats to our personal privacy.
Although it has an office in London, Privacy International currently has 16 partners that it works with on national issues worldwide, and it also works at the EU and UN level. The organisation is funded by charitable trusts and foundations and receives grants from statutory bodies. It turns away funding from private business.
In addition to its work examining the actions of governments, the organisation also researches, investigates and exposes the producing, selling and distribution of surveillance technology. It has a lot on its plate.
“There’s a whole industrial complex around surveillance in the private sector,” Kambo tells me.
“As the issues continued to evolve and mutate, one thing remains – technology is providing more and more means to undermine our privacy,” he continues.
“That’s something we rail against. We think personal privacy has been a very under-recognised human right. Until Privacy International arrived, and has worked hard to put privacy on the agenda, it wasn’t a human right that was given much consideration or credence.”
Data and control in a post-Snowden world
Before the Snowden leaks, when Privacy International raised the alarm about government surveillance, many of its critics labelled the group paranoid – a common thread for others proselytising digital rights early on.
“Many people thought we were paranoid,” Kambo says. “That there was no real issue. After June 2013, public perception has significantly shifted and recognises there is an issue here.”
But it’s “not just governments” that are breaching our right to privacy. The group also spends its time examining how household names use big data in ways their users are not usually aware.
Last year, for example, Facebook manipulated the emotions of some users by curating what they saw on their newsfeed. That’s concerning enough on its own, but the potential of the end results chime even more with something from sci-fi dystopia.
“The information we are presented with and selected for us can direct, influence and change our behaviour,” Kambo says. “This is being done without our consent. People were not giving their consent to have this data feed altered in that way.”
“What’s frightening about it is that this is about you as an individual, predicting your behaviour, and telling you what they think you should consume. Amazon already tells you that people who read this also read that. People find that useful.
"But how would we feel about Amazon telling you – based on data aggregated about you, where you live in terms of your postcode, in terms of your socio-economic status, established through your buying habits – that you should perhaps read 50 Shades of Gray, by E. L. James and someone else should be reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James?”
“You end up getting into an aspect of control and controlling people’s behaviour,” he says. “We have to take back control of our data. We can’t be manipulated in the way companies increasingly want to in order to become more powerful in the way they help us consume.”
People care about privacy
“I think the single biggest issue we face is about public attitudes towards privacy – people do care about privacy,” Kambo says. “Time and again we look at data from public polling and it’s overwhelmingly clear people care about personal privacy, but at the same time some are resigned to the idea privacy intrusions are unavoidable and that we can’t do anything about it. We want to change that perception. That’s one big challenge.”
Another challenge for Privacy International is squaring up to the argument of privacy versus security – that it’s impossible to have both.
“Governments across the world try to posit that we either have security or have privacy, they turn it into a binary argument and stoke up public fear,” Kambo says. “We simply do not accept this security versus privacy paradigm. We believe in security as well. But the evidence is very clear that mass surveillance does not increase our security – there is plenty of evidence to suggest it decreases our security. It puts more hay on the haystack and it makes the needles more difficult to find.”
Kambo goes on to explain that perpetrators of terror attacks had largely been known to intelligence groups, but this was the result of targeted surveillance and other methods. “There is evidence to suggest mass surveillance makes more noise for them, more information to sift through,” he says. “If you look at it in that context, that actually makes us less safe.”