The UK is quietly transforming into a dystopian surveillance state

Amidst the chaos of Brexit and President Trump, the UK has been quietly pushing through a bill to give it unprecedented surveillance powers. Now it's set to be law, and there's more to come. Welcome to the world's leading surveillance state

It’s safe to say that here in the UK things aren’t exactly rosy right now. Brexit is quickly turning into the biggest political shitshow in modern times, with no one, least of all the smarmy Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, appearing to have any form of concrete plan for what happens next.

Information released today as part of the government’s Autumn Statement has added more bad news; by 2021 the UK looks set to have a national debt of £1.945 trillion, a horrifying contrast to the previous target of a budget surplus by 2020, and a pretty galling one for all the people who suffered at the hands of the country’s Draconian, unfairly handed out cuts over the past few years.

Add the excitement that surrounded the unexpected election of Donald Trump as US president, and it’s easy to see why the last few months might have been an excellent time for the UK government to rush through any bills it doesn’t want to much attention paid to.

“The most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy”

Which brings us onto the matter of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Dubbed Snooper’s Charter II, this bill jumped through the final hoop towards becoming law on the 16th November.

And despite being described by Edward Snowden as “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy”, it did so with barely more than a whimper. The world, including the UK, was far more interested in the across-the-pond shenanigans, and so there was little to stop the government from steamrollering through a bill that will mean myself and every other person in Britain is almost continuously under surveillance.

If you want to get away from the watchful eye of the British Big Brother, you’ll have to either move to a very rural area and abandon technology altogether, or leave the country

As Snowden pointed out, the bill “goes farther than many autocracies”. It will compel internet service providers to store connection records of all UK internet users for 12 months, at the expense, I might add, of the UK taxpayer; increase the government’s ability to hack both individuals and groups of people; require tech companies to decrypt user data at the request of the government and continue the much-criticised practice of bulk data collection.

“The passage of the Snoopers’ Charter through Parliament is a sad day for British liberty,” summarised Bella Sankey, policy director for Liberty . ”Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the state has achieved totalitarian-style surveillance powers – the most intrusive system of any democracy in human history. It has the ability to indiscriminately hack, intercept, record, and monitor the communications and internet use of the entire population.”

Add the fact that the UK is already, in terms of CCTV, the most surveilled nation in the world, and the picture becomes extremely bleak. As of 2013 the UK had one surveillance camera for every 11 people in the country, meaning that if, like myself, you work in a city such as London, you’ll be on camera almost continuously from the moment you leave your house to the moment you get home.

Now you’ll be monitored at home too, meaning that if you want to get away from the watchful eye of the British Big Brother, you’ll have to either move to a very rural area and abandon technology altogether, or leave the country for an increasingly small list of surveillance-free alternatives.

The real reason for surveillance?

It’s worth taking a moment to remember that all of this is being done in the name of counterterrorism. It is also worth taking a moment to remember that in the last 20 years terrorism in the UK has claimed the lives of the total of 64 people, 56 of whom died in the 7/7 bombings. And that’s not just attacks by Islamic extremists, but also acts of terrorism committed by the Real IRA and, in the case of the murder of MP Jo Cox, a far right extremist.

Each one of those deaths was a horrendous tragedy, however the scale of response by the government is wildly disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Which begs the question: is there another reason for this unprecedented level of surveillance?

Back in 2015 Edward Snowden gave his own theory on the purpose of this type of surveillance, which feels horribly relevant today.

“When we look at the full-on mass surveillance watching everyone in the country in the United States, it doesn’t work,” he said.

“It didn’t stop the attacks in Boston, where we knew who these individuals were, it didn’t stop the underwear bomber, whose father had walked into an embassy and warned us about this individual before he walked onto an airplane, and it’s not going to stop the next attacks either because they’re not public safety programmes, they’re spying programmes.”

Ramping up censorship

Unfortunately the Investigatory Powers Bill isn’t the only law being quietly shoved through while the British public are freaking out about Marmite prices and the size of Toblerone.

While the IPB ramps up surveillance of the British public, the Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 will take care of censorship. Currently around halfway through the process of becoming law, the bill will require any and all pornography to be put behind extremely savage verification checks in a Helen Lovejoy-esque bid to think of the children.

Essentially when you visit the adult site of your choice you will be required to verify your age with one of a number of third-party organisations, such as banks, mobile phone networks or the National Health Service. This is being done to avoid the need for a creepy government-controlled central database, but given the powers offered in the IPB, there will be no need: the government will be collecting this information anyway. And this way you might even get the joy of having your data sold to a third party too.

The bill will require any and all pornography to be put behind extremely savage verification checks in a Helen Lovejoy-esque bid to think of the children

But that’s not all. Any site that doesn’t comply with this requirement will be blocked in the UK. And that’s not just websites dedicated to adult content, but those that happen to also have some, such as Reddit.

For many of these sites it will not be worth the expense of adding such a restrictive age gate the just UK users; in many cases the traffic and thus ad revenue they generate will be nowhere close to enough to justify the disruption, and so the UK will simply lose access to those parts of the internet.

And given that the types of sites we’re talking about here are likely to be forums, message boards and other sites where content is shared by different members of the community, that has pretty serious implications for free speech and freedom of information.

But that’s still not all. A minor clause in the bill will also force ISPs to block sites hosting any sexual acts that wouldn’t get certification by the British Board of Film Classification. These include any form of spanking or whipping that leaves marks, sex involving urination, female ejaculation or menstruation and sex in public.

These are not exactly super niche fetishes, and are found on many, many porn sites, and well as many non-porn sites that contain some adult content. All of which will be banned in the UK if this bill passes.

And while easy to say that its only porn, it’s quite likely many sites with plenty of non-pornographic content will be blocked thanks to a small amount of offending material on their servers. And given there will likely be little in the way of transparency over each site’s blocking, that is a truly worrying situation to be in.

May’s control

At the heart of these Draconian policies is of course the UK’s unelected Prime Minister, Theresa May. Both bills are continuations of policies she was attempting to get passed in her former role as British Home Secretary and demonstrate weird obsession with state control for someone who identifies as Conservative.

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister. Image courtesy of Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister. Image courtesy of Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Which is worrying, because before becoming Prime Minister May also expressed an interest in withdrawing from the European Convention of human rights, pushed through an outright ban on all psychoactive substances in the UK despite government advisers saying the approach was unworkable and, in a concerning attack on free speech, banned two divisive US bloggers from entering the country based only on their opinions.

It doesn’t paint a positive view of what’s to come for Britain. But perhaps more concerningly, the madness and confusion of Brexit will likely continue throughout May’s time as Prime Minister, making it unlikely that many of her policies will face adequate scrutiny.

The UK is already the most surveilled nation in the world, but now it’s starting to become a full-blown dystopian surveillance state. And the sad thing is, we’re probably not even going to notice when it does.

Life expectancy to break the 90-year barrier by 2030

New research has revealed that the average life expectancy is set to increase in many countries by 2030 and, in South Korea specifically, will improve so much as to exceed an average of 90 years. The study analysed long-term data on mortality and longevity trends to predict how life expectancy will change from now until 2030.

The study was led by scientists from Imperial College London in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Looking at 35 industrialised nations, the team highlighted South Korea as a peak for life expectancy; predicting expectancy from birth, they estimate that a baby girl born in South Korea in 2030 will expect to live 90.8 years, while men are expected to live to be 84.1 years.

Scientists once thought an average life expectancy of over 90 was impossible, according to Professor Majid Ezzati, lead researcher from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London:

“We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end. Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year barrier,” he said.

“I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy -if there even is one.”

South Korea leads in life expectancy. Image courtesy of jedydjah. Featured image courtesy of Carey and Kacey Jordan

Ezzati explained that the high expectancy for South Korean lives was likely due to a number of factors including good nutrition in childhood, low blood pressure, low levels of smoking, good access to healthcare, and uptake of new medical knowledge and technologies. It is likely that, by 2030, South Korea will have the highest life expectancy in the world.

Elsewhere, French women and Swiss men are predicted to lead expectancies in Europe, with 88.6 years and nearly 84 years respectively. The UK is expected to average 85.3 years for women (21st in the table of countries studied) and 82.5 years for men (14th in the table).

The study included both high-income countries and emerging economies. Among the high-income countries, the US was found to have the lowest predicted life expectancy at birth. Averaging similar to Croatia and Mexico, the researchers suggested this was due to a number of factors including a lack of universal healthcare, as well as the highest child and maternal mortality rate, homicide rate and obesity among high-income countries.

A lack of universal healthcare is one of the reasons the US trails behind in life expectancy. Image courtesy of HSeverson

Notably, the research also suggests that the life expectancy gap between men and women is closing and that a large factor in increasing expectancy is due in no small part to older sections of the population living longer than before.

Such increased longevity is not without issue, however, as countries may not be prepared to support an ageing population.

“The fact that we will continue to live longer means we need to think about strengthening the health and social care systems to support an ageing population with multiple health needs,” added Ezzati.

“This is the opposite of what is being done in the era of austerity. We also need to think about whether current pension systems will support us, or if we need to consider working into later life.”

Out in a matter of weeks, the Switch is a classic Nintendo console: offbeat, unusual and arguably underpowered. But it could also represent a new dawn in video games

On the 3rd March Nintendo will release its latest console and, arguably, its latest handheld. I am, of course, talking about the Nintendo Switch: the hybrid console that the Japanese gaming giant is hoping will return it to success.

Effectively a touchscreen tablet that can dock into a supporting hub to be used on the TV, the Switch is unlike any console we’ve seen before. Featuring two nunchuck-like controllers that can be attached to the sides of the main device to transform it into a portable system, or detached and used as motion or conventional controllers, the Switch is designed for a multitude of configurations and gaming styles.

Within the context of the current videogame market, it’s an extremely off-piste offering. While Sony and Microsoft have focused on producing meaty consoles with the best possible graphics, Nintendo has opted to run the Switch on a relatively modest Tegra processor that optimises as much for battery life as it does for graphics.

But in doing so, Nintendo has marked itself out as a very different type of videogame console maker, providing a product with very different features to its supposed competition. And while for some it is merely another example of Nintendo being just a bit crazy, those features could mark the start of a whole new category of gaming device.

State of the industry

Here in 2017, the gaming market is a very different place than a decade or two ago. For one thing, it’s far more mainstream: gone are the days where video games were something played only by teenage nerds in their bedrooms. Now everyone from your girlfriend to your mum is a gamer of some sort or another, and the types of games being made have become far more varied.


But if you were to look at the triple-A offerings from both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, you might not think that was the case. Both consoles remain faithful to the so-called hardcore, by and large they have done little to step up their offerings from the types of games they were offering a decade or so ago.

Nintendo, however, seems keen to make games for a host of different types of players, which could put it in a very good position come Christmas.

“We believe that by [next holiday season], with the launch of Super Mario Odyssey, that the footprint for Nintendo Switch will be very broad. Kids, young adults, parents, gamers will occupy that footprint,” explained Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé in an interview with Time.

“But what’s going to happen is that, that space is going to be filled in at each point in time with the subsequent launches. So for example, if you look at the first 45 days, you’ve got Zelda, 1-2 Switch, Mario Kart 8. So the active gamer. And candidly, the more the active gamer sees, the more excited they’re going to be for that game.”

On-the-go gaming

At the heart of the Switch’s appeal is the fact that it allows you to continue playing a console-quality game with you pretty much anywhere. Imagine being able to play Skyrim on your commute, Mario on a car journey or Zelda on a long-haul flight; it’s a very cool prospect.

And then there’s the appeal of a portable version of games that fans fall in love with and never stop playing. Rocket League, for example, has not been officially announced for the Switch, but developer Psyonix has been making positive noises that have got gamers seriously excited.

Imagine being able to play Skyrim on your commute, Mario on a car journey or Zelda on a long-haul flight; it’s a very cool prospect

By attracting different sets of fans across the gaming spectrum, Nintendo is widening its pool of users, and in doing so is likely hoping that it will significantly increase sales from the rather disastrous Wii U.

But the on-the-go element also has another appeal: free advertising. If users do take their Switch with them everywhere, they are likely to become a common site in cities across the world, and being more frequently aware of a product makes it far more likely that you’ll buy it.

However, for some developers the Switch provide a step towards a truly ubiquitous form of gaming.

Metal Gear Solid creator and all-round gaming legend Hideo Kojima, for example, was full of praise for the Switch in an interview with IGN, describing it as a natural evolution of a technology he developed called Transfarring, which allowed players to transfer saved data between the PS Vita and the PS3.

“I believe [Switch] is an extension of that idea. The fact you can play something at home and take it outside, this is the gamer’s dream. The Switch is an evolution of that,” he said.

“For example, often when you buy a Blu-Ray disc, it’ll have a code on the inside for a digital version, so in the same respect you can watch it at home and then take it on the go on your tablet and smartphone. This is how movies and TV are moving, and this is how games should go.”

He even went so far as to describe the Switch’s technology as a step towards a future where players can access their games anywhere.

“I feel like cloud technology is what everything will eventually move to,” he added. “It’s further behind right now than I think where people thought it would be at this point, but I think it will go there, and when the infrastructure is ready, you’ll be able to play everything, on every device, anywhere. The Switch is the predecessor to this step.”

Beyond the screen

The Switch’s innovation doesn’t just stop at portability. For some games, the screen itself will become a background feature, encouraging players to face each other and interact in a more personal manner.

“With Switch, it’s not just something that you’ll be looking at a screen to play. In certain cases you don’t even have to look at a screen,” said Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima in an interview with Time.

At launch, the game that will provide this functionality is 1-2-Switch, a party game that looks to be this console’s answer to Wii Sports. Featuring a host of mini games, it will see players facing each other to compete in everything from competitive milking to quick-draw Western-style duels.

It’s a bizarre offering, but exactly the sort of game you can imagine your granny playing at Christmas, meaning it’s probably going to be a hit.

Images courtesy of Nintendo

But whether other games will follow suit in rejecting a screen as the central focus remains to be seen. These types of gimmicks are often greatly talked about by Nintendo, but failed to attract much support from third-party developers.

Despite this, it is a sign that Nintendo is pursuing the line proposed by the company’s late CEO, Satoru Iwata. A veteran developer himself, he was concerned at how isolating modern technology was becoming, and so was keen to develop projects that would bring people together, and help them to interact.

“New technologies have, in general, made life easier and more efficient,” he said in a 2012 video presentation. “But we have to wonder what this means for the nature of human relationships moving forward… We believe we can solve the issue of alone together.”

Nintendo gets it right

At the end of last year, when Nintendo finally unveiled his proposition for the Switch, it was met with mixed reactions from the online world. While some were thrilled at the prospect of gaming on the go, others felt this was just another wacky Nintendo offering destined to go the same way as the Wii U.

Nintendo already appears to have surpassed the Wii U’s success, allowing them now to focus on the giddy sales heights of the original Wii

But Nintendo seems determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. Marketing for the Switch’s predecessor was fairly disastrous, with the initial announcement leaving players unsure as to whether this was a new console, or just a new controller. And it didn’t get much better from there: in many countries marketing for the Wii U was almost non-existent, and many consumers remained completely oblivious to the fact Nintendo had a new offering on the market.

But this time, the company seems to be getting it right. Carefully timed releases have ensured that online excitement has steadily grown over the past few months, culminating in an in excitement-inducing Super Bowl ad, and events for YouTubers and other non-corporate parts of the gaming media have contributed to far more discussion about the upcoming console than would otherwise likely have been the case.

All this has combined to create a situation where Nintendo already appears to have surpassed the Wii U’s success, allowing them now to focus on the giddy sales heights of the original Wii.

“Looking at responses from consumers, we are seeing that launch day pre-orders have nearly reached the maximum available. We will deliver Nintendo Switch orders as early as possible after the launch,” said Kimishima. “Our plan under the financial forecast is to ship two million units by the end of March, and we are increasing its production. We hope to see strong sales momentum like we saw in 2008 and 2009 [for the Wii].”