Surveillance costs lives

I gave a brief talk yesterday, followed by a Q&A, at the screening of CITIZENFOUR at the Cube cinema in Bristol. I was asked to talk about why I care about privacy, surveillance and digital rights. The reasons why I care and the particular aspects of digital rights that I am passionate about have changed significantly over the years, so in some ways this was a good opportunity to articulate that, and I thought I’d share with the class.

[Trigger warnings/content notes for discussion of domestic abuse, LGBT+ teen suicide, and institutional racism and ableism.]

One of the elements of my current PhD research involves looking into whether and how the internet facilitates political activism (in the widest possible sense of the term, because the personal is political), particularly for minorities and otherwise marginalised groups. Let me give you some examples.

One in four lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have no adult they can talk to about their sexuality, either at home or at school[1]. Many of them will therefore turn to the internet for information and support. For many LGBT+ kids today, the first space where they will feel safe being themselves will be online.

If you happen to be experiencing institutional racism from the police, or feel that you’re being treated unfairly by the JobCentre because of your disability, again, the internet is a likely place you will turn to for information, support, and to find other people with similar experiences.

Or, if you’re a woman experiencing street harassment on a daily basis, or in an abusive relationship, you may also seek help online.

There are many places on the internet that will provide you with practical advice or support: How do I come out to my Mum? How do I make a safety plan in case I need to leave my husband? What particular combination of forms and shibboleths might make the JobCentre treat me like a human being?

But there’s something else that happens too, something incredibly powerful, when you tell your story, and someone else stands up and says, “Me too.” Because suddenly, what you’re going through isn’t just a private, personal issue, something that is wrong with you and that you need to deal with on your own. You become aware that your issue affects many other people, that it is a social and political issue, and you can talk about it, and organise, and bring it into the public sphere.

Except, things work rather differently when you’re under surveillance.
Let’s go back to the queer kid, whose only access to the internet is at school. Half of it is filtered anyway, and the other half is monitored. Would you type “How do I know if I’m trans?” into Google if you knew that one of your teachers could see it an tell your Mum; if the horrendous possible consequences include being kicked out of home, or being subjected to serious physical violence?

How much more difficult is campaigning for justice if you’re the Lawrence family? If the police not only botched the investigation of your son’s murder but, to add insult to injury, put you under surveillance to make sure you weren’t rocking the boat too much?
And what of the woman in the abusive relationship, who knows that the police have access to data on how and when she used her phone, what she typed into Google; who knows that cops are two to four times more likely to be domestic abusers? Even if her partner isn’t a cop, she may rightly feel it’s too risky to seek help online.

The real problem here is that minorities and marginalised groups are disproportionately hit by surveillance. Partly this is a structural effect of the fact that we rely more than others on the internet as a place to meet and organise. But it’s also because some of these groups are specifically and systematically targeted for surveillance by the security services. If you happen to be a person of colour, or your name happens to me Ahmed or Muhammad, you bet that your data is subjected to much more scrutiny by the security services than if you’re a white, middle-class dude called John Smith. This is regardless of whether you have anything to hide.

But not only does surveillance have a chilling effect on the kinds of issues that can be discussed and brought to public attention; not only does it disproportionately hit minorities and marginalised groups; surveillance costs lives.

One in four LGB young people have attempted suicide, and nearly half of trans kids. Two women every week are killed by current or former intimate partners. And if surveillance plays even the slightest role in these people not being able to access help, or meet others with similar experiences, or organise and campaign, then surveillance is at least partially responsible for those deaths.

And that’s why I care.


I would also like to address one question that came up in the Q&A, which is “How can we find the right balance between privacy and security?” This is one of those tropes about privacy that just refuses to die: the notion that somehow there is a trade-off, and that if only we were willing to give up that little bit extra of our rights, we would somehow be magically safe from the big bad terrorists. If this is how you conceptualise your own privacy and security, I would really like you to question the implicit assumptions behind the privacy vs security dichotomy. I would particularly like you to ask yourself who you need to be safe from. And I would like to posit to you that if terrorism is genuinely the greatest threat to your existence, then you live an incredibly privileged life indeed. For most of us the threats come from elsewhere. With 45% of women experiencing domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking at some point in our lives, the existential threats we face come predominantly – and unfortunately – from men. And if you’re a protester in Ferguson, MO, tonight, then by far the single greatest existential threat for you comes from your own police force. These are not issues we will solve with more surveillance.

[1] These figures are from Stonewall. I am not aware of similar figures existing for trans youth, but suspect they are higher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *