Shami Chakrabarti: Public are complacent about surveillance

By  Fayrouz Khallad and Anam Azeem

The public are “dangerously complacent” and increasingly “uneducated” about the growth of the “surveillance state”, the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabati, warned students at Leeds Beckett University on Wednesday.

Speaking as part of the university’s Law in Practice week, the director of of the National Council for Civil Liberties — commonly known as Liberty — made a speech on the importance of human rights and particularly the surveillance state in the digital era.

She asked: “Is it right that security agencies and governments from both sides went in for wholesale blanket surveillance, not in relation to particular suspects, but to entire populations without public knowledge or debate let alone consent or parliamentary legislation?”

Chakrabarti insisted that there needs to be debate on the growth of digital surveillance, and gave huge credit to Edward Snowden — the NSA whistleblower — for bringing the subject of online surveillance to the world’s attention.

Moreover, she added that the “surveillance state” could soon gain extra legislative powers with the introduction of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Despite the media attention given to the Bill, dubbed by critics as the “Snooper’s Charter”, Chakrabati believes that a large amount of the public are in the dark about what this could mean for their future.

Chakrabarti added that there is a tendency for people to be “dangerously complacent,” but also added that it is indeed a tactic to keep the public uneducated about their rights and those of people across the borders. “The government does not like being challenged or questioned,” she said.

Acknowledging possible counter views, she trotted out the defence that those who believe that innocent people have nothing to fear from online surveillance. However, she went went on to cite examples where innocent people were often targeted by unfair, unlegislated surveillance simply for being considered “an irritation,” as in the case of Doreen Lawrence. Through investigative journalism, Lawrence found out that the police had not been adequately investigating her son’s murder, and once she became a ‘nuisance’ to them, she was put under surveillance. Undercover officers were planted in her home and friendship groups. “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear? I don’t think so,” Chakrabarti stated.

She further expressed concern over online “blanket” surveillance, comparing the routine harvesting of everyday data from the internet and mobile phones as to being the equivalent to having microphones and cameras inside people’s homes. “Younger people particularly are living more intimately online these days than in the real or offline world.” She went on to explain that the authorities would be recording every detail of every person’s life without looking at the data collected: “we are not going to monitor, but just record everything” in case there ever was a need to investigate someone, she said.

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