Technology and human rights in 2017

Below is a transcript of my talk at Liberty’s 2017 Annual General Meeting:

We have the extraordinary challenge, and the privilege, of being at a unique and vital axis in time – the precipice of a seismic technological revolution. As the world rapidly changes, our struggle to uphold, entrench, and extend human rights at the core of it is a struggle that’s outcome will certainly outlive us.

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We often pair technology and surveillance, because new ‘smart’ and internet connected technologies are used for surveillance, tracking, and data collection. If the industrial revolution was fueled by oil, the technological revolution is being fueled by data – a valuable commodity that is being mined and exploited at almost any cost. Protecting privacy is the environmental challenge of the information age. It is fundamental to the sustainability of a healthy democratic society.

As technological innovation grows, so too do the opportunities to embed surveillance in all aspects of everyday life.

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Surveillance has taken root from the phones in our pockets, and is increasingly creeping into the home.

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We warned you: smart TVs are watching you

WikiLeaks recently published CIA documents detailing the agency’s array of hacking tools – including the ability, developed in partnership with MI5, to hack smart TVs in order to subvert them into covert listening devices.

The leaks also revealed ongoing projects such as the development of hacking technologies for car software, raising questions as to the risks of fatal outcomes.

Few of the security and intelligence agencies’ practices are more disturbingly Orwellian than the subversion of TVs to covertly spy on households.


In this short discussion on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 programme, I explain why hacking TVs is a bad idea, why you need to be concerned about it, and what Liberty is doing to fight the UK’s own capabilities to hack citizens en masse. Also in the discussion are computer security expert Robert Shifreen, and the BBC’s Security Correspondent Gordon Corera.

The full programme is available here (expires 7 April 2017): BBC Radio 2


How the UK Government can hack your personal data

Originally published by Mashable, 18th February 2017

By Gianluca Mezzofiore


From the moment you set foot on British soil, your personal data could easily be accessed, or even hacked, by the government.

New invasive legislation has been dubbed by critics as one of the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a democracy.

The Snoopers’ Charter — aka the Investigatory Powers Act — was passed into law at the end of last year. It arguably removes your right to online privacy.

In short, it forces internet companies to keep bulk records of all the websites you visit for up to a year and allows the UK government to coerce tech companies to hand over your web history with a retention notice and remove encryption, upon request.

If you think all of this sounds rather alarming, it’s because it is.

So what happens if you’re an unsuspecting visitor blissfully unaware of mass surveillance in the UK? Here’s a provisional guide:

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A Law That Treats All Citizens As Suspects

This is a video interview with Euronews, published on 27th January 2017, discussing how the Investigatory Powers Act (‘Snooper’s Charter’) affects us, and the onset of Liberty’s legal challenge to the mass surveillance powers.

Full video here: The UK’s new surveillance powers treat all citizens as suspects




Join Our Legal Challenge Against Our Authoritarian Surveillance Regime

By Silkie Carlo

Originally published on The Huffington Post, 10 January 2017

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Since the Snoopers’ Charter – or Investigatory Powers Act – passed in November, everything you’ve done online, every phone call you’ve made, every text message you’ve sent, every place you’ve been with your phone has been stored in a database by order of the British Government. And it’s been made accessible to everyone from the taxman to the Department for Work and Pensions – as well as other governments, like that of the United States.

Under the new law, authorities have also been granted powers to hack thousands of devices at once – without any reason for suspicion – simply to make sure they can keep listening in on everything you do, all the time.

All this surveillance is supposed to keep us safe from terrorists who want to attack our democracy – but what could be more undemocratic, more dangerous, and more defeatist than treating all British citizens like suspects and tearing apart the freedoms that define us?

These are digital stop and search powers with unprecedented secrecy and sophistication – on steroids. The potential for discrimination, persecution and abuse is unthinkable.

President-elect Trump has already committed to using his arsenal of mass surveillance powers against all Muslims and anti-racism activists. What might the UK Government of today or moreover, tomorrow, do with such totalitarian-style powers?

We have long expected to be able to correspond, meet, telephone one another, read newspapers, enjoy radio and films, join political parties, explore faiths, visit libraries, travel, demonstrate, seek medical advice, take and share photographs, and express ourselves freely and without the watchful eye of the state. But with our daily lives increasingly digitised, pervasive surveillance under the Snoopers’ Charter rips those freedoms away and reshapes British values for the future, almost beyond recognition.

Ironically, the Snoopers’ Charter not only attacks our democratic values, but jeopardises our cybersecurity. The Government can now force tech companies like Apple to remove encryption and weaken the security of their own products in total secrecy. This means easy mass surveillance for the State, but an increased risk of criminal hacking for us.

Meanwhile, internet providers are now forced to create records of our every online move – what websites we visit on our computers, what apps we use on our phones – and store them, ready for the State to access. TalkTalk wasn’t even able to protect its customers’ credit card details from hacking last year.

So whose hands will your internet history end up in, exactly? If you thought the Ashley Madison hack was bad, I fear you’ve seen nothing yet.

If this worries you, you’re not alone. Since the Snoopers’ Charter was passed by Parliament in November, over 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for its repeal. The Government dismissed those who signed, refusing to debate the Act further.

But the Government cannot dismiss human rights. And the Government cannot dismiss 200,000 people with human rights law on their side.

Just before Christmas, Liberty and Tom Watson MP won a legal challenge against the Government’s previous surveillance law at the EU Court of Justice.

The Court declared that the mass hoarding of our communication logs and internet histories is unnecessary and “cannot be considered to be justified, within a democratic society” – rendering the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act unlawful. The Court also ruled that allowing the police to authorise their own access to our personal information, and to do so without any suspicion of a serious crime, was a breach of rights.

This was a massive victory for our civil liberties in the digital age.

The Snoopers’ Charter re-introduced the same powers that have just been declared illegal – and added new, even more intrusive, ones. But creating a new law for 2017 cannot let the Government circumvent the human rights law that protects us.

So today Liberty has launched The People vs the Snoopers’ Charter – a legal challenge against this authoritarian surveillance regime, backed by the ordinary people subjected to its gaze.

Liberty will be representing the many thousands of people who are determined to stand up for civil liberties. We’ll be challenging new powers to hack our devices en masse, to listen in on millions of innocent people’s communications, collect our phone records, and watch our every move online.

This is a rare chance to be part of a movement that defines our freedoms – not just today, but for the future. Liberty has defended human rights and civil liberties for 80 years, but we must all work together to keep defending them in the digital realm. This could be the beginning of the end for mass surveillance in the UK, The most authoritarian law ever passed in this country will be defeated by the people.

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear? Think again.

This curious aphorism has, at times, threatened to deaden the debate on privacy that arose since Snowden blew the whistle on transnational mass surveillance. The submissive posture of ‘I have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear’ is a popular resort for those avoidant of critical thought – perhaps due to their subjection to a surveillance system so powerful, so omniscient, so secret, and so unknowingly invading their world, that it had only been encountered, until now, as a fearful thought experiment in dystopian fiction. Some, not least the political class, seem unable to deal with the reality.

Accordingly, ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ is the kind of eerie statement you would expect to hear only in a totalitarian regime, and perhaps obediently echoed by its brainwashed subjects who you, as the privileged, educated, and valued citizen of a Western democracy, would pity. “We” have had our debates on individual liberty, privacy, democratic practices and balances of governmental power. We have responded to tyrannical tragedies of political history, we have evolved with robust constitutions, we have proudly committed to human rights acts, and we have expected them to be followed closely.

But it seems that with the birth of the New World, the digital world, we will see the same struggle between power and liberty that the Old World has endured for all civilisation. The New World seems to be a tabula rasa, with the hard lessons gained about power, politics and human nature momentarily forgotten and constitutional values trampled in the race to dominate and exploit the new abstract terrain.

A person parroting that they have ‘nothing to hide’ and therefore ‘nothing to fear’ is saying something so void, that it doesn’t necessarily mean they are pro-mass surveillance. It means that they are not anti-mass surveillance. It means that, realizing it has been imposed on their life, the lives of all those they love and care about, and the lives of people further afar who they may never meet, they consider themselves not personally at risk and therefore have abstained from further critical analysis. Effectively, they are proclaiming a commitment to unconditionally submit.

Let’s respond to the ‘nothing to hide’ aphorism in the following ten points.

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Take action against UK’s fake-emergency Data Retention Bill


I utterly condemn the UK coalition government’s use of emergency powers to rush through parliament the new, controversial Data Retention and Investigation Powers Bill.

I condemn the intentionally undemocratic method by which the snooping bill is being passed, by staging a “theatrical emergency” to rush it through parliament thus avoiding its scrutiny and any public debate. There is no emergency. The British government is using emergency powers disingenuously to hide months of secret, back room talks since April when the European Court of Justice ruled that such data retention violates our basic rights to privacy and personal data protection. I entirely condemn the response of the British government to that ruling, which seems to be to undermine the democratic process in addition to violating our rights.

In addition to falsely claiming that the country is facing an emergency, the British government is using misleading rhetoric about what the data retention law actually means for the public. In his announcement on Thursday, 10 July 14, Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that without this bill the country would “leave a means of communication for paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals to communicate with each other that, in extremis, we cannot intercept”. Whilst we are all keen to see such serious criminals brought to justice, Mr Cameron’s statement is misleading on two counts. Firstly, the Prime Minister is using emotional rhetoric around paedophilia and terrorism to justify a law that will in fact collect private data of the entire British public – not suspects of serious crime. This rhetoric is exploitative and offensive. Secondly, law enforcement agencies already possess the capability to conduct extensive and forensic surveillance, even retrospectively, once a warrant has been sought.

Take action

I would urge concerned citizens to lobby their MP to reject this bill by email, phone and on social media, urgently.

You can easily email your MP via the Open Rights Group’s campaign page

If you wish to email your MP directly, you can find their contact details here:

This is my letter to my MP.

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