While the revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) snooping on private communications of U.S. citizens are extremely troubling, the situation could be much worse. Cast a sympathetic thought to the Her Majesty’s subjects in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, where almost everyone eavesdrops on everyone else. While the island nation of 60 million covers roughly the same area as Michigan, it is swathed in over 4 million CCTV (closed circuit television) surveillance cameras.
We adore the English here in the States. They’re just so precious! They call traffic circles “roundabouts,” prostitutes “prozzies,” and they have a queen. They’re ever so polite and carry themselves with such admirable poise. We love their accents so much, we use them in historical films to give them a bit more gravitas. (Just watch The Last Temptation of Christ to see what happens when we don’t: Judas doesn’t sound very intimidating with a Brooklyn accent.)
What’s not so cute is the surveillance society they’ve built—but the U.S. government seems pretty enamored with it.
The United Kingdom is home to an intense surveillance system. Most of the legal framework for this comes from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which dates all the way back to the year 2000. RIPA is meant to support criminal investigation, preventing disorder, public safety, public health, and, of course, “national security.” If this extremely broad application of law seems familiar, it should: The United States’ own PATRIOT Act is remarkably similar in scope and application. Why should the United Kingdom have the best toys, after all?
This is one of the problems with being the United Kingdom’s younger sibling. We always want what Big Brother has. Unless it’s soccer. Wiretaps, though? We just can’t get enough!
The PATRIOT Act, broad as it is, doesn’t match RIPA’s incredible wiretap allowances. In 1994, the United States passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which mandated that service providers give the government “technical assistance” in the use of wiretaps. RIPA goes a step further and insists that wiretap capability be implemented right into the system. If you’re a service provider and can’t set up plug-and-play wiretap capability within a short time, Johnny English comes knocking at your door to say, ” ‘Allo, guvna! I ‘ear tell you ‘aven’t put in me wiretaps yet. Blimey! We’ll jus’ ‘ave to give you a hefty fine! Ods bodkins!” Wouldn’t that be awful (the law, not the accent)? It would, and it’s just what the FBI is hoping for. CALEA is getting a rewrite that, if it passes, would give the FBI that very capability.
I understand. Older siblings always get the new toys, and it’s only natural that we want to have them as well. But why does it have to be legal toys for surveillance? Why can’t it be chocolate? The United Kingdom enjoys chocolate that’s almost twice as good as American chocolate. Literally, they get 20 percent solid cocoa in their chocolate bars, while we suffer with a measly 11 percent. Instead, we’re learning to shut off the Internet for entire families.
That’s right. In the United Kingdom, if you are just suspected of having downloaded illegally obtained material three times (it’s known as the “three strikes” law), your Internet is cut off. Not just for you, but for your entire household. Life without the Internet, let’s face it, sucks. You’re not just missing out on videos of cats falling into bathtubs. You’re missing out of communication, jobs, and being a 21st-century citizen. Maybe this is OK in the United Kingdom because you can move up north, become a farmer, and enjoy a few pints down at the pub every night. Or you can just get a new ISP, because the United Kingdom actually has a competitive market for ISPs. The United States, as an homage, has developed the so-called “copyright alert system.” It works much the same way as the U.K. law, but it provides for six “strikes” instead of three and has a limited appeals system, in which the burden of proof lies on the suspected customer. In the United States, though, the rights-holders monitor users for suspected copyright infringement on their own, without the aid of ISPs. So far, we haven’t adopted the U.K. system in which ISPs are expected to monitor traffic and dole out their three strikes at their discretion.
These are examples of more targeted surveillance of criminal activities, though. What about untargeted mass surveillance? On June 21, one of Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed that the Government Communications Headquarters, the United Kingdom’s NSA equivalent, has been engaging in a staggering amount of data collection from civilians. This development generated far less fanfare than the NSA news, perhaps because the legal framework for this data collection has existed for a very long time under RIPA, and we expect surveillance in the United Kingdom. (Or maybe Americans were just living down to the stereotype of not caring about other countries.) The NSA models follow the GCHQ’s very closely, though, right down to the oversight, or lack thereof.
Media have labeled the FISA court that regulates the NSA’s surveillance as a “rubber-stamp” court, but it’s no match for the omnipotence of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which manages oversight for MI5, MI6, and the GCHQ. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is exempt from the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act, so it doesn’t have to share a thing about its activities (FISA apparently does not have this luxury—yet). On top of that, members of the tribunal are appointed by the queen. The queen. The one with the crown who has jubilees and a castle and probably a court wizard. Out of 956 complaints to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, five have been upheld. Now that’s a rubber-stamp court we can aspire to!
Or perhaps not. The future of U.S. surveillance looks very grim if we’re set on following the U.K.’s lead. Across the United Kingdom, an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras, some with facial-recognition capability, keep watch on nearly the entire nation. (This can lead to some Monty Python-esque high jinks.) Washington, D.C., took its first step toward strong camera surveillance in 2008, when several thousand were installed ahead of President Obama’s inauguration.
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Image: Royal coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, as used in England and Wales, and Scotland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.