10 Signs Britain Is Becoming A Creepy Police State
In December 2014, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, Sir Peter Fahy, warned that the UK was in danger of drifting toward a police state. Nearly one year later, it’s beginning to look like he was right. Across the country, a raft of measures are being brought in that suggest the UK might be setting off down a very dark path. While the country is still light-years ahead of places like Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, the following new laws constitute a worrying step in the wrong direction.
10Permanent Mass Surveillance
The Snowden revelations of 2013 changed the world. As a direct result of the whistle being blown on the NSA, Congress passed a law in 2015 banning the bulk collection of data. It was a victory for civil liberties over state intrusion. Yet as Obama was signing the act into law, the UK was headed in the exact opposite direction. Right now, a revived version of the so-called Snoopers’ Charter that was defeated in 2012 is poised to place everyone in the UK under permanent mass surveillance.
Proposed by Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May, the bill would make it compulsory for data providers to store everyone’s Internet search history for a year. This data would be searchable by the security services, with extremely little oversight to ensure these powers are not abused. This is all despite a White House review concluding bulk data collection does nothing to increase public safety.
Perhaps more worryingly, the bill also undermines the concept of encryption. At the moment, if you send an iMessage via Apple, Apple itself has no idea what you’ve said. The encryption means the message is scrambled until it reaches the receiver. Apple physically can’t access your message, even if ordered to by a government. The new bill would change that, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Under new laws, companies like Apple and Google would have to supply your unencrypted messages on demand. This means creating a backdoor into their own encryption. There’s no such thing as a backdoor only the “good guys” can use. Making one that can’t be exploited by hackers is literally impossible. If this law passes, encryption in the UK would be significantly weakened. Anyone with a bit of tech know-how would be able to intercept and read all your messages. Meanwhile, the real “bad guys” would continue using stuff like Tor, beyond the reach of the state’s surveillance apparatus.
9State Hacking Of Smartphones
Imagine if the state had the ability to monitor you at any time, anywhere you went. Imagine also that they had a device that could record video or audio of you whenever they wanted it to. In the UK, such a device already exists. It’s called a smartphone, and the Snooper’s Charter will give the government the right to access it at any time.
To call this creepy would be an extreme understatement. The UK government has already given itself the power to hack any computer in the world. Now, it wants to hack smartphones too. The bill would explicitly give spies the power to install software on any phone, allowing them to look in on your messages, photos, and emails at any time. Worse, privacy campaigners say government spooks will also be allowed to track UK citizens’ locations, listen in on their phone calls, and even activate cameras and microphones.
The result would be the end of privacy. Spy agencies would be allowed to record British subjects with their own devices whenever they feel like it. The latest version of the bill published on the government’s website indicates they plan to go ahead with these chilling powers, despite opposition from civil liberties groups.
8Spying On Members Of Parliament
In March 2015, the news broke that UK police had been spying on members of the government. The majority of those targeted were linked to the left-wing opposition Labour party, including now-leader Jeremy Corbyn. In all cases, the spying continued after the targets had become MPs.
It’s impossible to overstate how disturbing this is. All those known to be targeted came from left-wing parties. Some had been involved in activism, but none constituted a threat to national security. Yet they were actively monitored by the police force’s domestic extremism unit, the same group responsible for tracking down terrorists and jihadists.
There’s also the matter of the Wilson Doctrine, a 1966 promise by Prime Minister Harold Wilson to exempt MPs from surveillance. After the story broke, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that agencies such as GCHQ have the power to ride roughshod over the doctrine, spying on any member of parliament they want to.
On the plus side, the new Snoopers’ Charter will change that, formalizing the doctrine and giving general protection to MPs’ communications. The downside is it will place the power of deciding which members of the government can be monitored solely in the hands of the prime minister.
We’re not suggesting David Cameron is the sort of PM who would abuse those powers. The point is he doesn’t have to be. Once it’s enshrined in law that the PM can potentially authorize spying on his opponents, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where that power will one day be abused. Just because Britain has a relatively honest PM in 2015 does not mean that will be the case in 2030, or even 2025. By refusing to completely safeguard MPs’ communications, Theresa May could well be sowing the seeds of an extremely dark future.
The Edward Snowden revelations were initially jointly published by The Guardian and the Washington Post. The contrast between what happened to the two papers couldn’t be more stark. In the US, the Washington Post was honored with a Pulitzer (shared with The Guardian’s US team). In the UK, The Guardian was visited by government spies and forced to destroy its own hard drives. Downing Street also explicitly threatened to have the paper closed down.
Fast-forward to 2015, and things get even more chilling. The Guardian is currently under investigation by the MET Police’s counterterrorism taskforce. Journalists from the paper may yet be arrested and charged with committing a criminal offense, despite there being no evidence that they did anything wrong.
The National Union of Journalists has called this an attack on press freedom, arguing that The Guardian was working in the public interest. Some, such as media lawyer Mark Stephens, have theorized the investigation is less concerned with arrests and more with creating a chilling effect that would put journalists off covering security issues. Since the investigation is being conducted in utmost secrecy, it’s not quite clear how this might work, but the overall effect is certainly worrying. Leaked memos have already revealed GCHQ considers all journalists to represent a potential threat to national security. With this outrageous investigation, the spooks seem determined to turn that claim into a reality.
6Hollowing Out Democracy
Democracy works best when it gives voters a real choice. Weaken the population’s power to choose, and your democracy becomes hollowed out. All this should be obvious. Yet the UK government is currently fast-tracking plans that can be described as partisan or gerrymandering.
Later this year, independent commissions are scheduled to redraw constituency boundaries across the UK. That’s a necessary step, since population shifts have left some urban constituencies with fewer voters than their suburban counterparts, giving an unfair advantage to Labour. The problem comes from a 2011 law passed by the Conservative-led coalition, which requires the boundary commissions to base the new constituencies on the voting register, rather than overall population figures. That’s fine for the Conservatives, whose core voters (older white homeowners) are likely to be registered. However, young people in rented accommodation, who are more likely to vote Labour, often aren’t registered at all. In July, the UK Electoral Commission estimated that around seven million eligible voters, many of them inclined toward Labour, weren’t registered and therefore risked being ignored when the new boundaries were drawn up.
This alone would be worrying enough, but there are other signs the Conservatives are engaging in activity that could be considered gerrymandering. Under new laws, voters will have to register individually, rather than by household. It’s estimated the move will disenfranchise millions of young and poor voters, the majority of whom support Labour. In the deprived London borough of Hackney, it’s estimated nearly one-quarter of the voting population will vanish from the electoral register, while roughly 1.9 million people could be removed from the register in the country as a whole. And that’s going to happen directly before the boundary commissions use the electoral register to redraw the constituency boundaries across the country.
It doesn’t end there. The Conservatives also want to reduce the number of MPs by 50, which analysts say would also benefit them over Labour. According to the BBC, the changes could mean “fewer voters in fewer constituencies could add up to a bigger majority for the Conservatives.” In fact, when reporters crunched the numbers, they found the new boundaries would have given the Conservatives a parliamentary majority of 50 at the last election, instead of their current 12. The Conservatives are also planning to clamp down on trade union funding to Labour—the main source of funding for the party. Taken all together, these changes suggest a concerted effort to push the Labour party permanently out of power.
5Spying On And Manipulating Protestors
In 2012, a former UK activist made a chilling discovery. Opening a paper, she discovered a story about undercover officers infiltrating protest groups and starting long-term relationships with female activists. One of those officers was the father of her son.
Twenty-four years earlier, officer Bob Lambert had gone undercover in a peaceful protest group she was part of. There, he’d seduced her, started a long-term relationship, then abandoned her after their child was born. During all this time, he was being paid by the London MET police to gather information on the woman he was seducing.
Lambert was far from the only one. Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, hundreds of police officers did the same thing. In one case, a former officer continued working undercover for multinational company Global Open after leaving the force, so a private company was paying him to emotionally manipulate a woman who thought he loved her. Ten women involved in these operations are now suing the police for their role in this.
Terrifyingly, these operations weren’t all historical. Some were being conducted as recently as 2010.
4Spying On And Manipulating Victims Of Crime
The Stephen Lawrence murder is one of the most infamous in British history. On April 22, 1993, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in broad daylight by a gang of racists in southeast London. The case became a textbook example of creepy police intrusion and corruption.
The police repeatedly bungled the investigation. It took until 2012 for anyone to be convicted of the crime, despite the names of five of the killers being public knowledge since at least 1997, when they were printed in a newspaper. Justice was only done thanks to the tireless campaigning of Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Doreen Lawrence. It has since emerged that instead of pursuing the killers, the MET Police spied on her and the rest of the grieving Lawrence family.
Currently, the investigation into how far these abuses went is still ongoing. It’s still managed to throw up some nasty revelations. The MET’s current counterterrorism chief was involved, as was the head of its powerful Special Demonstration Squad. Officers are known to have infiltrated a group close to the Lawrence family and then blocked any further investigation into the murder. In October 2015, it was revealed that the police may have deliberately shielded and protected the killers.
Sadly, this flagrant display of corruption is far from a one-off. A couple of years ago, it emerged that police had participated in a massive cover-up of the Hillsborough Disaster, a crush at a soccer match that left nearly 100 people dead. Despite the fault lying squarely with the officers on duty, the police orchestrated a long-term smear campaign to blame the fans for their own deaths.
3Arbitrary Removal Of Passports
Revoking someone’s citizenship is an extreme step to take. As a result, it should only be done if the person in question has committed some truly disgraceful act. In 2014, the UK government gave the Home Secretary Theresa May the power to strip naturalized British terror suspects of their passports. According to the law, this can be done without a jury or any judicial oversight.
The key word in the proposal is “suspected.” It makes perfect sense for people with dual nationality to have their UK passport revoked if they’re convicted of committing a terrorist act. But that’s not what’s happening here. As the law stands, May can strip someone of their British citizenship simply because she suspects them of being involved with terrorism. This means no trial, no jury, and no judge—just the gut feelings of one woman accountable to no one.
Already, this decision is having consequences. Minh Pham was stripped of his British citizenship under an older version of this law for suspected links to Al-Qaeda. He denies these claims but has been given no opportunity to contest them in a court of law. Since losing his British citizenship, his Vietnamese citizenship has also been revoked, as Vietnam does not allow dual nationality. As a result, Pham is now stateless, despite no one knowing for certain if he ever did anything wrong.
2Treating Ordinary Citizens As Terrorists
Introduced in 2000, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act allows local councils to install hidden cameras, bug phones, and intercept electronic communications. It was part of a raft of anti-terrorism legislation designed to target extremists in local communities. In 2014, Scottish local councils used these powers to target everyone from dog walkers to underage teenagers using sunbeds.
It wasn’t just in Scotland where anti-terror powers were abused. In England and Wales, town halls accessed more electronic communications than GCHQ and MI6 combined. In almost every case, those being targeted were not terrorists but ordinary citizens suspected of stuff as boring as petty fraud. Incredibly, this is considered a step up. In 2008, it was revealed that half the councils in the UK were using anti-terror powers to spy on people who threw their garbage out on the wrong day.
These powers shouldn’t be taken lightly. They allow for the installing of secret spy cameras near someone’s house and near-unlimited surveillance. They should only be used in exceptional circumstances, such as in the case of a possible terror attack. Yet UK councils have instead decided to treat their local citizens as terrorists, abusing their powers to do so.
1Spying On And Removing Children
In February 2015, it became law for schools to prevent children getting radicalized. This has effectively forced teachers to spy on their pupils, searching for any sign of possible dissent. We aren’t exaggerating for effect. In June 2015, the government approved technology from Impero Software specifically designed to “help teachers spy on pupils’ potentially extremist online activity.” By tracking “terrorist-related” search terms, it will supposedly point schools toward potentially radicalized teenagers.
This is a stupid idea on several levels. Apart from asking unqualified teachers to determine who is and isn’t a terrorist, it leaves innocent kids doing their homework open to being labeled extremists. When we write articles like this one, for example, we search endless terms connected to terrorism—not because we want to blow up the government and establish a Listverse caliphate but because it’s the easiest way to find sources relevant to our topic. The same goes for any teenager trying to write an essay about, say, the Iraq War or Northern Ireland’s Troubles. As the icing on this cake of paranoia, TechDirt recently reported that the software itself was extremely open to malware exploitation.
Yet this isn’t even the worst way Downing Street is targeting children. In October 2015, the Family Division of the Judiciary revealed its plans to remove children from homes of those it suspects might radicalize them. Once again, no proof is needed beyond a suspicion. If the courts consider you a possible extremist, they will soon be able to take your kids away without question.
Once again, we want to stress that the UK is a much freer, nicer, and more open society to live in than many others. People languishing in places like Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan would kill for the freedoms British citizens take for granted. But freedoms aren’t guaranteed to last forever. If the UK government continues on down this path, the day might one day come when we look at British society, and realize we’re no longer seeing a country that can legitimately call itself “free.”