Exeter, Devon UK • Sep 23, 2023 • VOL XII
Exeter, Devon UK • Sep 23, 2023 • VOL XII
Home Features “They’ve got powers they’re not using properly” – an interview with Renate Samson

“They’ve got powers they’re not using properly” – an interview with Renate Samson

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The dystopian surveillance state imagine by George Orwell. Image: en.wikipedia.org

It may well have passed you by but the draft Investigatory Powers Bill was unveiled by the government in November last year. It’s the first time the investigatory powers notoriously revealed by Edward Snowden have been made explicit in law. ‘What’s that got to do with me?’, I hear you mutter (Exeposé editors have their own powers of surveillance, don’t you know?). Well, unbeknown to most of us, our data have largely been up for grabs until now. The last major piece of legislation on this issue is desperately out of date, with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) enacted in 2000. If you have the slightest concern about civil liberties and privacy, this is a debate you ought to concern yourself with. The stumbling block most people face is getting their heads around the technicalities of the issue.

I’m speaking to Renate Samson, Chief Executive of the pressure group Big Brother Watch, to get to the heart of the problem and to understand the finer details of the debate. As an Exeter alumna who graduated with a degree in drama, she’s taken a somewhat circuitous route to her present position, “from drama to television to politics and now to campaigning”. Reflecting on her career path, she chuckles about coming from “a degree where it was all about sharing and telling everybody everything, and I now try to encourage people to be a bit more sensible about that!”

I begin our interview by quizzing Samson on this very point. After the initial outrage at the Snowden revelations, media coverage and public concern have largely moved on. What exactly is at stake with the new bill and why should it remain a matter of public interest? She answers quickly and authoritatively, as someone who wrestles with these concerns everyday. “Firstly, the bill is needed or, rather, a bill is needed,” she qualifies, expressing her concern that the draft bill presented in November is not the right piece of legislation. “With the publication of this draft bill, the government effectively acknowledged that they had been doing [this kind of surveillance] for a long time and they want to carry on doing it.” With regard to Big Brother Watch’s stance on the matter, Samson is clear: “the bulk gathering of any of our data, we argue, is intrusive to just anyone going about their day-to-day business […] While we are completely supportive of finding people who are up to no good, we don’t feel it’s proportionate to mass survey or bulk collect the data of every citizen.”

“my understanding is that we are all born innocent, free people”

No one would question that the prevention of paedophilia, terrorism and other serious crimes is of the utmost importance, and this is the justification behind giving the police greater access to bulk data sets such as internet connection records. This differs from the targeted surveillance that have been previously granted for our security. However, when it comes to defining exactly what a ‘bulk personal dataset’ is, the bill is vague at best. Samson points out to me that, simply in virtue of being born in the UK, it seems we are placed on a database with a secondary purpose of surveillance and suspicion. “Now, my understanding is that we are all born innocent, free people, that by being born and being registered when you’re 16, getting a national insurance number and so on, you find yourself on a dataset that intelligence agencies can then sift through at will. Without them telling us otherwise, we can only assume that that’s the case.”

Edward Snowden. Image: en.wikipedia.org

I point out that the debate is often misconstrued as concerning itself with whether or not we need surveillance. In fact, we ought to be concerned with picking out these sorts of loopholes, striking the right balance between privacy and security. Samson, too, is keen to clarify the terms of the debate. “Your point is absolutely right – have we struck the right balance with this one? Now, the government with say ‘yes’, but everybody else seems to be saying ‘no’! […] the government, therefore, has a lot of work to do before presenting us with something that does strike the right balance, whether it’s to do with cost issues, whether it’s to do with privacy, or whether it’s to do with security.” As it stands, intelligence agencies and the police already have a broad range of powers to conduct targeted surveillance, and yet, as Samson explains, for every atrocity since 9/11, the perpetrators have been known to these security bodies. “We would argue that they’ve got powers they are not using properly right now,” she tells me. “So let’s use them properly before calling for more.”

When it comes to public understanding about matters of privacy, I’m unconvinced as to how much so-called ‘digital natives’ really understand about who has access to their data, particularly when they are used to trading their data for online services such as Google and Facebook. I wonder whether those who grew up without the internet are more concerned by the impact of the bill. Samson answers carefully: “I genuinely think it depends on the individual. There are a lot of people of the older generation who say ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, and it’s very important that the government keeps us safe’. To an extent they are absolutely right on that.” In contrast, she points to the ingenuity of some young people online, using pseudonyms and fake birth dates to protect their personal information, compared with the older generations who “just give a straight honest answer”. There is certainly a subset of young people who are more tech savvy, using browsers such as Tor to protect their privacy.

“Bugger off! That’s really intrusive!”

However, I suggest to Samson that there are plenty who fundamentally misunderstand how their data is processed and unwittingly give away much information via social media. Samson agrees and admits “organisations like mine have got an awful lot of work to do just trying to get people to think about data”. Her voice takes on a sardonic tone as she reflects on how unacceptable the consequences are. “If someone were to ask you in the street what you did when you woke up in the morning and how you intend to spend the rest of your day and whether they could come up to you a bit later on and advertise to you about a pair of shoes or a handbag, you’d say no! Bugger off! That’s really intrusive!”

Theresa May, Home Secretary. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Samson is dissatisfied with being told we’re being kept safe without being told more precisely what the government is doing. Thus far, there has been no parliamentary consent to use of ‘bulk personal datasets’. “Historically, if someone wanted to come and look around your house because they suspected you of a crime, a) they had to suspect you of a crime, and b) they had to then knock on the door and ask you, in more cases than not. Now, we’re all suspected. We argue that it should remain a targeted process rather than a bulk process. Deal with the people you suspect and leave the rest of us alone.”

The joint committee consulting on the bill has shut its doors and the bill itself is due to come out “some time in Spring”. If people are worried by the outcome, Samson encourages two primary courses of action. Firstly, engage with privacy organisations like Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group or Liberty. Secondly, write to your local MP, regardless of whether you can vote. “Members of Parliament see this as an issue where it’s all alright. This is your opportunity. We live in a democracy, we all have the right to vote, we should use that to make our voice heard.”

“We live in a democracy … we should use that to make our voice heard”

Big Brother Watch’s sphere of concern stretches far beyond holding the government to account, and, as Samson is keen to point out, “an awful lot of what the government does is very good and very helpful and we’re just trying to strike a balance”. At present, the consensus amongst both public and private organisations is that “because data is out there, it’s there for the taking”. As Samson notes, “we’re very careful as to who we tell things in real life, or in ‘analogue world’” but this doesn’t translate to our online behaviour. “Frankly, Google knows what we’re thinking better than we do.”

We’ve got to learn to ask ourselves the right questions online, Samson says, in the same way we ask ourselves if we’ve locked the front door before we leave the house. “Nobody is going to look after us, we can only look after ourselves. Companies aren’t going to look out for us because they’ve got their own agenda. Government will look out for us in terms of protecting our safety but the ways they go about that might actually create more concerns.”

For more information and fact sheets on the Investigatory Power Bill, head to the Big Brother Watch website here.

Renate Samson will be speaking at the university on February 29th.

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