UK surveillance ‘worse than Orwell’ claims UN privacy chief

25 Aug 2015

The UN’s new — and first — privacy chief has claimed UK surveillance is “a bad joke” that is to the detriment of its citizens, and it’s far worse than what George Orwell discussed in his novel 1984.

Joseph Cannataci’s role in the UN came about in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations a couple of years ago, as politicians struggled to control the global fallout.

Much of Snowden’s leaks revolved around the US surveillance arm NSA, of which he was a contractor.

However, some of the more extreme intrusions revealed actually involved the GCHQ, the UK’s equivalent.

This is not lost on Cannataci, who thinks the UK’s approach to mass, unlimited surveillance is “precisely one of the problems we have to tackle”.

A bad joke

Speaking to The Guardian, he said: “If your oversight mechanism’s a joke, and a rather bad joke at its citizens’ expense, for how long can you laugh it off as a joke?”

When asked if it was as bad as Orwell’s masterpiece 1984, he said it was much worse. In 1984, he explained, the protagonist could escape to the countryside, away from prying eyes.

“Today there are many parts of the English countryside where there are more cameras than George Orwell could ever have imagined. So the situation in some cases is far worse already,” he said.

“The way we handle it is going to be the difference. But Orwell foresaw a technology that was controlling. In our case we are looking at a technology that is ever-developing, and ever-developing possibly more sinister capabilities.”

History repeats itself

So wary is he of the capabilities of state-sponsored surveillance online, you will struggle to find Cannataci on social media, with the academic arguing that the world needs a Geneva convention on privacy.

This suggestion becomes clear when you consider previous cases in the UK, most notably the heavily rushed through, and since ruled unlawful, DRIPA Act.

DRIPA requires communications operators to store for a year all of their customers’ personal communications data, tracking their phone and internet use – this is so a whole swathe of UK officials can have access to it.

Interesting note, if you want a truly intrusive surveillance project, rush it through and worry about the fallout later – it gives you a free year to do as you please.

Back in the spring, a parliamentary committee cleared UK spy agencies of illegal snooping but called for an overhaul of Britain’s surveillance laws.

It was a very middle of the road response to something quite clearly questionable. ‘It’s wrong, but you didn’t know that, so we’ll let you go’ is the kind of thing you do with adolescents, not organisations with immensely powerful tools.

Now that Cannataci is on the case, there’s a chance that state surveillance will be reined in around the world.

However, in starting with the UK, Cannataci is aiming for the stars incredibly soon. Still, in a really weird political environment, you have to start somewhere.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic