Opinion: Do people not care about civil liberties?

It is inevitable that amongst the images of more than 1.8 million Yahoo! users hoovered up by GCHQ there are photos of children, and surely – given the scale of it – of children in their bedrooms. Yet where is the outcry?This latest discovery from the Snowden files is not simply the next chapter in the story of how every aspect of our online lives has been monitored over recent years. It also blows apart the standard defence used so far that only metadata – who called who when, but not the content – has been gathered up and picked over. Taking still images of people through their webcams is taking content. But are people bothered?

People just don’t care. They weren’t much bothered when they first found out that information about their online habits was being mined by the State, regardless of whether they had done anything wrong. Now it seems they don’t even care that images of their own children may have been taken and stored – just in case little Jack or Emily turns out to have been running an Islamist terror cell, presumably in between watching episodes of Bear Behaving Badly on CBBC.

I am not a fundamentalist libertarian. The State does have a responsibility to keep us safe, to guard against internal and external threats. But the powers it has to do that, and importantly the limits placed on those powers – so that the State remains our servant and not our master – are important. They need to be debated, consented to and then respected. As a general rule, those responsible for our national security need to seek permission before embarking on vast, long-term data trawling of the entire population, not simply ask for forgiveness after they are caught red-handed.

Actually, I am not sure GCHQ has even asked for forgiveness. Their response to the latest revelation is: “We’re not commenting on anything.”

It is disheartening to learn of the latest way in which our privacy has been stripped despite the fact that most of us haven’t done anything wrong. More disheartening however is the fact that there is such little public controversy about it. Is it just me, or do people just not care?

 

* Stuart Bonar was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Plymouth Moor View.

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28 Comments

  • Of course people care. The greater question, is why our (so called!), political representatives don’t care, or don’t care enough to pull the leash on the likes of GCHQ?
    It’s all part of the same question asking why on average 70% of people don’t vote. If our MP’s have no power (or no desire), to tackle the important issue you have rightly pointed out, surely, the crucial question is, why the remaining 30% even bother to vote?

  • As a Plymothian I shall be voting for UKIP – the reason Mr Bonar is that the European Union is obsessed in controlling my life.

    Whether it be what I smoke, what I eat, what I drink, whether I drive, or how much I exercise – the EU wants to stick its nose into my affairs.

    Also, whilst the LibDems have been part of the coalition, a measure has been introduced under which I now have the possibility of my bank account being perused by any EU quangocrat as a result of the European Investigation Order.

    Contrary to your last assertion people care a great deal about our privacy – it’s the arrogant political class who don’t.

  • Perhaps ordinary people don’t feel they can do much about it.

    Maybe a more pertinent question to ask in this forum is “Where is the outcry from self-styled liberal politicians?” They are (theoretically) in a position to do something about it. Don’t they care?

  • People don’t care because they don’t see what consequence it could have.

  • Melanie Harvey 1st Mar '14 - 2:15pm

    There are then those who play GCHQ at their own game. How many wild goose chases have they followed? Is that why so many alleged though not shown terrorist activities have been thwarted because they weren’t at all?

  • Stuart Mitchell 1st Mar '14 - 2:43pm

    People are probably just resigned to the inevitability of it all, given that it’s happening on the Lib Dems’ watch, and the Lib Dems (and Tories) said they’d put a stop to this kind of thing.

  • To see why these issues are not tackled as they should be, just ask yourself a question. Is William Hague an elected representative of Richmond, or is he a mouthpiece of the United States secret service? Difficult one, isn’t it? But at least you can now see that oversight of GCHQ and what they do, is not even defined by the good people of Richmond, (or indeed any UK voter!), but by what Washington DC instruct little Billy Hague and GCHQ that they must do.
    Just wondering, can anyone put a date on the point in time, that democracy died?

  • Jenny Barnes 1st Mar '14 - 3:14pm

    People turn out to do politics if I think it will make a difference. For example they might join a political party and vote in it’s democratic policy setting forum (aka conference) on things such as secret courts. If their MPs who they have worked and campaigned to put in parliament ignore those democratic decisions, then doing all that has no point.

    PS. Where is the spring conference app that was allegedly going to be available today (1/3/2014)?

  • Jenny Barnes 1st Mar '14 - 3:14pm

    if they think …

  • At least security services act in the interests of the state, try getting profit motivated facebook to remove your profile…

  • Sorry I don’t see the scandal here. Everyday CCTV systems collect millions of images containing children, these are typically retained for sometime, just like the data GCHQ has hoovered off the Internet. The issue isn’t so much that GCHQ (and CCTV operators) have images containing children but what they do with them. So there would be a scandal if data collected by GCHQ (or a CCTV operator) was ending up in the hands of paedophiles et al.

  • Sorry I don’t see the scandal here.

    You really don’t see what’s wrong with material from private webcams being indiscriminately intercepted by the security services?

    You really don’t see why that is different from operating a CCTV system in a public place?

    Remarkable.

  • Stuart,
    I was interested that you said —
    “…I am not a fundamentalist libertarian. The State does have a responsibility to keep us safe, to guard against internal and external threats…”

    Does the State have any more responsibility to “keep us safe” in this sense than to keep us safe from poverty and disease?
    One argument against GCHQ getting involved in this sort of thing is the ridiculous mis-allocation of resources. Many of the so-called threats to national security turn out to be myths or paranoia but still they result in huge expenditure on GCHQ, MI5, MI6, various special intelligence services etc etc
    We are not allowed to know how much is spent on all these mushrooming agencies and their dubious activities.
    Until recently the official line was that they did not exist.
    Parliament is allowed a committee chaired by the ludicrous Malcolm Rifkind to act sometimes in secret to be a toothless defender of these agencies rather than a body exercising authority over them.

    Meanwhile money for housing or social security benefits cannot be found and we have the obscenity of the bedroom tax. Apparently money can always be found to fund secret agencies to defend us from “enemies of the state” but people whose security is threatened by poverty are given a chit to go to the food bank .

  • Stuart Mitchell 1st Mar '14 - 4:58pm

    There’s a significant omission in the Guardian’s revelations. They do not specify whether the original Yahoo images were public or private. If it’s the former, I don’t see what the fuss is about. If people make data publicly available on the web then they can hardly complain if this data is “harvested”. In fact, I would regard it as a dereliction of duty if the security services were not harvesting every bit of publicly available social media tittle tattle they can get their hands on.

    Personally I treat the web as if it is a public space and behave accordingly. Quite apart from the snooping of GCHQ and the NSA (which we at least know about and is subject to some sort of democratic control), anything you put on the web is subject to snooping by endless corporations, foreign powers, and crooks (most of which we don’t know about and is subject to no democratic control). When people talk about “privacy” on the web I think they’re deluding themselves.

  • “Quite apart from the snooping of GCHQ and the NSA (which we at least know about and is subject to some sort of democratic control),”
    What democratic control? Who do you vote for to stop it?

  • “There’s a significant omission in the Guardian’s revelations. They do not specify whether the original Yahoo images were public or private.”

    The article refers to webcam conversations between two people (though it notes that “the Yahoo software” can also be used to transmit a signal to more than one person). So clearly this does not relate to public webcam footage. The software referred to is presumed to be Yahoo Messenger, which is similar to Skype.

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st Mar '14 - 6:03pm

    JohnTilley – ‘Does the State have any more responsibility to “keep us safe” in this sense than to keep us safe from poverty and disease?’

    That right there is the issue here. To my mind, civil liberties has completely lost its way as a political argument. OK, there might well be some level of discomfort about the various Guardian revelations of the past few months, but FaceBook is not on the verge of closure is it? LDV gives us options to post directly to Twitter, FaceBook and Google+ from this page.

    Civil liberty and questions of oppression do not start and stop at the role of the state and demarcation is where the public at large have been somewhat forgotten by liberty campaigners.

    After all, does anyone really buy into the idea of a utopian internet? I’ve always seen it a something that destroys jobs and acts as little more than a first-rate delivery system for gossip and pornography. We don’t seem to object when large supermarkets track our buying habits, nor do we object to having mobile phones that can track our location. Look at phone sales over the past few years. Ultimately of course people are not forced to ever go onto the internet. Mr Bonar, it’s not that people don’t care per se – it’s that liberty means more than the things that are obsessed over in the politico-liberal internet echo chambers.

    Put this another way, whatever happened to a Lib Dem analysis of oppression by capital? What about the liberty implications of BTL contracts (no friend to visit, no pets, no children, no redecorating). It is basically the freedom to be made homeless and treated like a cash-cow. What about the liberty implications of wages driven down by immigration? The diminution of organised labour? The liberty implications of zero-hours? Do Lib Dems have anything to say about these crimps on our liberty? There seems to be plenty of corporate liberty, but liberty to be meaningful has to go beyond who is looking at your holiday snaps. It’s not that people don’t care about web privacy, just they have a different sense of perspective on liberty.

    Whether it animates you or not, web privacy is not the first and foremost form of oppression in the mind of the man on the Clapham omnibus. I worry that the argument at times skates dangerously close to the idea that liberty is about giving people the freedom to starve.

    The political debate on civil liberty has lost its way precisely because it has stopped looking at the liberty of the type that looks at , ‘poverty and disease,’ that John Tilley talks about. I would hazard a wager that those things are seen as a notch or two higher than web privacy in the liberty pecking order – whatever value judgment we make ourselves.

  • So which major party do people who care about civil liberties go to?

    Labour after the authoritarian examples in their last period of government.
    Conservative who, the likes of David Davies aside are as bad if not worse than Labour.
    Lib Dem whose ministers have praised the secret court measures.
    Neither coalition party has jumped into action to censure GCHQ as a result of the increasingly worrying Snowden exposures.

    People who care need a Party they can support who are consistent both inside and outside of Government. I used to think that was the Lib Dems, it could be again.

  • Julian Tisi 1st Mar '14 - 10:07pm

    One thing that I admire about this party is that it takes civil liberties seriously but we have to recognise that the public don’t necessarily see things with the same perspective. Take CCTV for example – I know many liberals are pathologically against the thing and will tell you how we’ve become a surveilance state and that we’re oppressed as a result. But most of the public don’t agree with this analysis and i have to say nor do I. When you see just how many crimes are solved via CCTV on balance I have to say that it can be a good thing, so long as there are rules followed with regard to what can be recorded, how data is stored, when it’s destroyed, who can use it etc.

  • Stuart Mitchell 2nd Mar '14 - 10:33am

    @John Dunn
    “What democratic control? Who do you vote for to stop it?”

    In theory, a party could stand on a promise to rein in this kind of thing (like the Lib Dems at the last election), and then actually stick to that when in power (UNLIKE the Lib Dems since the last election).

    The fact that the Lib Dems have welched on their promises does not mean that GCHQ is not subject to democratic control. I recognised the imperfections by describing it as “some sort” of control.

  • Stuart Mitchell 2nd Mar '14 - 10:43am

    @Chris
    Not being an expert on these things, I checked a couple of tech websites before I posted that and the (much better informed than I) writers there certainly thought there was some ambiguity around this.

    I wonder what the reaction would be if we ever found out that, say, Russia and China were intercepting all the same data that GCHQ and the NSA were. Who would people bleat to then? People are looking at this issue from the wrong end. If it’s possible for security agencies to intercept this stuff, then there’s a problem with the design of the service in the first place, so people should either (a) complain to Yahoo about it, or (b) stop deluding themselves that there’s any such thing as 100% privacy on the web. So long as it’s possible to intercept this data, then I’d rather our security services were at least as good at it as those from other countries.

  • If it’s possible for security agencies to intercept this stuff, then there’s a problem with the design of the service in the first place, so people should either (a) complain to Yahoo about it, or (b) stop deluding themselves that there’s any such thing as 100% privacy on the web. So long as it’s possible to intercept this data, then I’d rather our security services were at least as good at it as those from other countries.

    Sorry, but I don’t understand that attitude at all.

    If it came to light that the security services were indiscriminately intercepting private telephone conversations – for example – would you really be suggesting that people should be complaining to BT for not making it technically impossible, or “stop deluding themselves that there’s any such thing as 100% privacy on the telephone”?

    Perhaps there are relevant technical questions about how this is being done, and whether it could be made harder for governmental agencies (and others) to violate people’s privacy in this way, but surely the most important point is that it is completely unacceptable for our government to be behaving like this – particularly in view of the public assurances it has given about civil liberties.

  • @Chris
    “You really don’t see what’s wrong with material from private webcams being indiscriminately intercepted by the security services?”

    I suggest you re-read Stuart Bonar’s opening sentence, which sets the context in which the rest of his article should be read. Stuart wasn’t commenting so much on what was reported in the Guardian, but trying to manufacture a scandal about the GCHQ data potentially containing “photos of children” and shock horror “of children in their bedrooms” and hence it is the potential presence of these images is why there should be an outcry!

    Yes there is an issue of just how insecure communications across the Internet really are and hence the relative ease with which third-parties, of all persuasions can capture ‘personal’ information, however that wasn’t what Stuart was getting in a lather about.

    By the way the internet is a public place, once your communications leave your premises they will travel over a publicly shared infrastructure, so the comparison with CCTV is valid.

  • “Yes there is an issue of just how insecure communications across the Internet really are and hence the relative ease with which third-parties, of all persuasions can capture ‘personal’ information.”

    That may indeed be one issue, but I can’t for the life of me understand why you are blind to the overriding one, which is that the British security services – not just any old “third party” – are indiscrimately intercepting communications that are clearly meant to be private, between people who are not alleged to present any threat to security, on a huge scale. It may be technologically easier than listening in on telephone conversations or opening mail, but otherwise it’s just the same thing. How can any liberal consider it acceptable?

  • Simon Banks 2nd Mar '14 - 9:02pm

    Few people are concerned about “civil liberties” but lots are concerned about the state or businesses telling them what to do or mining their private lives. The problem is partly one of language. It’s also one of pointing out just what personal information might be mined or what the impact might be – for example, not getting a job you would otherwise have got, being refused entry to a foreign country for your holiday or wrong suspicions that you’re a paedophile getting on to police records and hence on to enhanced CRB checks.

  • @Chris
    “How can any liberal consider it acceptable?”

    A good question, but you are asking it of the wrong person, the person who you should be directing that question at is Stuart Bonar! It is clear from his article that he does not regard the general hoovering up of information by GCHQ et al as a scandal, but that such information may contain images of children is.

    My responses have been targeted at Stuart’s article, not the article he references in the Guardian, hence I stand by my original challenge to Stuart namely: please explain why why it is a scandal that GCHQ may hold images of children in the data they have (rightly or wrongly) collected from the Internet?

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