One of the most depressing aspects of the passing of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) this week was the level of political consensus. All three major parties backed it, aside from a few mavericks in Tory and Labour ranks. Despite some excellent speeches in the Lords, it passed through there in double-quick time, without their Lordships even deeming it worthy of a vote. It got me thinking, what else has a similar level of consensus? The obvious answer, sadly, was austerity. Ed Miliband is due to give a speech today to Labour’s National Policy Forum which, it seems, will confirm Labour’s commitment to it.
There is no alternative…
There are more parallels between surveillance and austerity than we should feel comfortable with. Our main political parties view both surveillance and austerity as ‘given’, and as though there are no alternatives even worth considering, let alone exploring in any detail. Both, we are told, are for our own good. Those who resist both, we are told, are unrealistic dreamers or worse. If we don’t embrace both, we are told, there will be disasters, and the future is bleak.
Divisive and simplistic…
Both also rely on divisive and simplistic assumptions.
The essence of the drive to welfare ‘reform’, in particular, is the idea that there are ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’, and that the former are being made to suffer by the latter. The former, the ‘good’ people, don’t need welfare, and won’t suffer from the results of austerity.
The essence of the drive for surveillance is that there are ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people – and that the ‘good’ people are being made to suffer by the ‘bad’. The former, the ‘good’ people, don’t need privacy, and won’t suffer from the results of surveillance.
In neither case are the divisive and simplistic assumptions true. As anyone who studies the details knows, the majority of people on benefits are also in work. People shift from being in work to being out of work, from being in need to being able to do without it. The whole idea of ‘scroungers’ is overplayed and divisive, particularly in relation to people with disability. Similarly, the idea that ‘good’ people have nothing to hide, so don’t need privacy, is one of the classic misunderstandings of privacy. We all need privacy – it’s part of what we need as humans, part of our dignity, our autonomy. It’s a pragmatic necessity too, as those in power do not always use their powers for good – the latest of the Snowden revelations, that the NSA pass around naked pictures of ordinary people that they find through their snooping is just another example of how this works. Privacy isn’t about hiding – it’s about what we need as people.
It’s all about power
Ultimately, though, the thing that surveillance and austerity really have in common is power. They’re ways that those with power can keep control over those without it. Keep poor people poor and desperate, and they’re more malleable and controllable. They’ll take jobs on whatever conditions those offering them suggest. Surveillance is ultimately about control – the more information those in power have, the more they can wield that control, whether it’s monitoring social media in order to stop protests or manipulating it to make people happy and like particular products or services.
What we can do about it is another question. The real point about the people in power is that they have power…. and reducing that power is hard. We should, however, at least do our best not to have the wool pulled over our eyes. This isn’t for our benefit. It’s for theirs.