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In her Downing Street statement following the London Bridge attack on Saturday night, in which eight people were killed and dozens wounded, Prime Minister Theresa May emphasised the need for tougher action against terrorist planning and extremism online.
Just days before polling day, this was probably the first time that cyberspace came into the limelight during the election campaign.
If online regulation usually struggles for public attention, this is nothing new in British politics.
In the wake of intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden in 2013, a Cambridge academic with related expertise asked the author why such revelations on state surveillance had not stirred more reaction from the British public.
As recent polling indicates, he had a point. The Snowden story doubtless helped to galvanise a new privacy lobby in the UK, led by a mix of Liberal Democrats, The Guardian newspaper and human rights champions, such as Amnesty International and Liberty. But this lobby has seemingly struggled to make wider headway in the public debate.
The Investigatory Powers Bill (the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, according to its opponents) became law in late 2016 with what The Guardian called ‘barely a whimper’ of national discussion, despite an online petition to repeal it with over 100,000 signatures.
Even against a backdrop of recent terrorist attacks on Parliament, cyber-attacks on the National Health Service and alleged Russian hack-attacks on Western democracy, the latest UK general election campaign has given little emphasis to the cyber debate.
The government’s argument remains clear: that national security in the digital age requires bulk data retention and targeted access to the full spectrum of modern communications technology, and that new legislation ‘dramatically increases’ safeguards on privacy and oversight.
To its opponents, the same legislation marks a dangerous increase in state snooping powers that are vulnerable to misuse, from embarrassment-blackmail to intimidation of informants and whistle-blowers.
For many surveillance critics, moreover, such powers foreshadow the creeping presence of totalitarianism within liberal society and the danger that it could really happen here, especially after the so-called rise of authoritarian populism in the Trump-Brexit era.
By contrast, recent YouGov research suggests a majority of British voters are neither overly moved nor concerned by the surveillance question, and tend to err on the more hawkish side of debate. (See end of post for methodology)
In a list of online issues including cybercrime, cyber attacks, surveillance, trolling, propaganda and fake news, only 21% of respondents listed UK government surveillance of its own citizens among their main concerns, compared with 66% citing cybercrime, 46% citing cyber attacks and 45% citing access to inappropriate content by children.
Surveillance activists and the public may also have different priorities on privacy, according to results. Voters appear notably more concerned about data collection by private companies than by the state, with 39% citing ‘companies collecting and sharing your personal data online’ among their top concerns, compared with 21% for state surveillance.
When asked about the balance between privacy and security, just over a quarter (26%) said they favoured doing more to protect privacy, compared with 56% saying either more should be done to protect national security even if it compromises privacy (32%), or that the current balance between privacy and security is about right (24%).
Results show some unsurprising political variation, with Conservative and UKIP voters more likely than Labour and Lib Dem supporters to emphasise security, but still the larger portion in each case favours either boosting security at the potential cost of privacy or keeping the current balance.
This is not to say a majority of voters have boundless confidence in the Government’s new guarantees on oversight and transparency. The public looks undecided on whether current levels of surveillance oversight are sufficient, with only 7% thinking there is ‘too much’, 26% saying ‘about enough’ and 29% suspecting there is ‘too little’.
It should be noted that some of these findings show a relatively high proportion of respondents answering ‘don’t know’, including 38% in the case of oversight. Such figures arguably highlight a key challenge for public engagement on this kind of issue, namely its technical and legalistic nature. There are also clearly limits to what single, closed-response questions can capture on attitudes to the detailed specifics or implications of investigatory powers, and more deliberative forms of enquiry would doubtless paint a more variegated picture.
Notwithstanding, we find perceptible levels of support, at least in basic principle, for bulk collection (38% – see results) and targeted surveillance (52% – see results). The same findings also portray a yawning age gap.
Among 18–24s, for example, support for bulk data retention falls to 25%, while support among those aged 65+ climbs to 52%. Similarly on targeted action, 33% of 18–24s said they support it versus 69% of those aged 65+.
Back to the bigger picture: if policymakers currently have an upper hand in public opinion on surveillance, there are several explanations that may interact.
Critics of the policy say the issue has suffered political negligence from both Parliament in general and the Labour Party in particular, which bear significant blame for public apathy and lack of awareness.
It may also be that British voters are simply more concerned about security than privacy, as the reality of terrorism and cyber threats are never far from daily life. This factor may combine with what the author John Lanchester describes as a distinctly un-abstract approach to rights in British society.
In several other parts of the West, he notes, the relationship between citizen and state is based more on abstract conceptions of individual rights, where the perceived intrusion of privacy is self-evidently a bad thing. But ‘while some countries are interested in rights, in Britain we are more focused on wrongs’, says Lanchester, having followed a more historically incremental path to liberty.
In turn, he believes, the surveillance story may have gained less traction partly as ‘we’ve been given no specific instances of specific wrongs having been committed’. And so the issue becomes a perfectly sealed mechanism, in which we are impassive about rights in the abstract and prevented by law from hearing about wrongs in practice.
These results certainly indicate a British leaning towards the line of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, and perhaps towards seeing online law enforcement as essentially akin to offline. In a question on which statement best describes current surveillance law, 47% said it ‘generally makes us all safer and is only something to worry about if you are doing something illegal’.
A smaller group of 31% said it was ‘something we should all be worried about for giving new surveillance powers to the state that could too easily be abused’.
By this token, attitudes to surveillance could be a proxy for more general levels of trust in the establishment. This could be bad news for the privacy lobby. A vibrant, anti-establishment mood may currently permeate British politics.
However, levels of public trust in key institutions of establishment seem relatively high, with clear majorities saying they trust judges and senior policy officers to act in the country’s best interests, and trust the police and intelligence services to behave responsibly with information obtained from online surveillance.
In short, where Britain stands on surveillance could be more about where it sits on a scale of institutional, rather than political, trust.
Results can be seen here.
Methodology: Fieldwork was conducted online between 26–27 February, 2017, with a total sample of 2017 British adults. The data has been weighted and results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.
This article has been updated following confirmation that eight people were killed in the attack.
Banner image: Armed police on St Thomas Street, near London Bridge and Borough Market, the scene of Saturday night's terror attack. Courtesy of PA Images.