Comment: Campaigners against state surveillance are talking nonsense

Carl Miller: Placing some parts of society under surveillance is a vital way of keeping society (and our other rights) safe
Carl Miller: Placing some parts of society under surveillance is a vital way of keeping society (and our other rights) safe

By Carl Miller

Today, 500 writers have added their name to an open letter to the United Nations. In it, some of the most influential authors in the world demand an end to the 'mass surveillance' exposed by the revelations made by Edward Snowden. The letter calls on the UN to create an international bill of digital rights, and for states and corporations to sign and respect this convention. 

So what's the matter with digital rights? The letter does something very dangerous: when it states things like "all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested", and demands the right for people to determine "what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored and processed", it confuses and elides mass surveillance (indiscriminate, disproportionate, bad) with just surveillance overall.  

I'm not a fan of the current surveillance system we have in place. Long before the Snowden revelations I argued (alongside, incidentally, a former director of GCHQ) that the system of laws we have in place were not fit for the digital age. Likewise, Jamie Bartlett's excellent piece in the Spectator rightly points out how the private sector also gets away with murder by profiting from your data. 


But claiming "a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy" is plainly nonsense. Placing some parts of society under surveillance is a vital way of keeping society (and our other rights) safe, and has been for hundreds of years. Democracy, on digital spaces as much as offline ones, is the messy and difficult art of balancing different public goods together. The European Convention of Human Rights recognises that privacy (article 8) is an important but not inviolable right. It sits within a framework of other rights (especially Article 5, the liberty and security of the person) that are sometimes in necessary tension.

Extending digital rights online means extending this system of tensions and trade-offs. It is not about making the online space, now such an important tapestry of public and private spaces – to be completely off-limits to legitimate law enforcement, and I cannot believe that most of the signatories to this letter sincerely believe that it is. It is these kind of broad-brush, polarising confusions that really are frustrating efforts to practically move towards a system of laws, checks and balances that people can have faith in.

One author that would not have signed this letter is George Orwell. 'Orwellian' is the word used to describe the Snowden revelations perhaps more than any other. However, Orwell understood two things that are important to now remember.

Firstly, that language is important. It is now being used to frame the issue as one of democratic rights vs. Surveillance. That is deeply wrong. Second, that surveillance has a worthwhile place in democratic societies.

In his dying months, Orwell passed names of possible Communist spies (and also colleagues) to the Foreign Office’s new covert political warfare department. He wrestled with this decision for months, and that is because these trade-offs are difficult and painful, certainly not straightforward and obvious as the letter today implies.

Carl is the Research Director of the Centre for Social Media, Demos. He specialises in the use of social media research to learn about people, ideas, groups and society. He is the co-author of the Demos publications #Intelligence (2012), Truth, Lies and the Internet (2011), and The Power of Unreason (2010).

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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