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.

In the face of a collapsing market, Acer goes once more unto the smartwatch breach

Despite the fact that smartwatches are generally seeing their sales plummet, Acer has decided to release a new product into the collapsing market. Taking “an elegant approach to fitness”, the Leap Ware smartwatch seems to be fairly standard fare, using an array of fitness-tracking sensors in combination with an app to keep tabs on all of the various statistics the sensors provide.

“As the pace of modern lifestyles become ever more hectic, people demand technology that can keep them on track and motivated to pursue their goals,” said MH Wang, general manager of Smart Device Products in Acer’s IT Products Business.

“The new Acer Leap Ware is designed to act as a virtual coach to help people go, track, and share, sending them reminders and alerts when they need them the most.”

Acer obviously has to promote its product but the above statement seems somewhat bizarrely unaware of the fact that not only is the company offering pretty much the exact same thing every other smartwatch does, but is are doing so in a market that is dying a fairly nasty death. With big names like Pebble going under, and Fitbit’s stock having been on a steady decline, the persistence in putting out new products is a bold move.

In October 2016, the BBC wrote about a new report by market analysts IDC that showed amartwatch shipments declined by 51.6% year-on-year. The Apple Watch held its place as the market leader, but shipped only a quarter of the units it had sold in the same period (July-September) of 2015. And of the five leading brands, only Garmin showed growth with that growth still being underpinned by low figures.

“It has become evident that, at present, smartwatches are not for everyone,” said Jitesh Ubrani from IDC. “Having a clear purpose and use case is paramount, hence many vendors are focusing on fitness due to its simplicity.”

Images courtesy of Acer

It was pointed out by experts that the period examined was before new versions were released, but there is still a clear lack in significant consumer appetite. The market has largely survived off the fitness aspects, with other products largely falling by the wayside as the novelty wears off. And Acer itself hasn’t exactly been the premium forerunner.

The Leap Ware watch certainly seems a perfectly fine entry into the marketplace. It’s got “diverse fitness tracking features thanks to an array of sensors with advanced algorithms” and supposedly has a battery life of three to five days so you don’t miss out on logging those all-important stats. My watch only tells the time and date. It also has a battery life of ten years.

There is a reasonable chance that initial sales for the Leap Ware may be strong, being all shiny and new as it is. There’s also a very good chance they will quickly plummet as Acer discovers what consumers are desperately trying to tell them: people don’t want smartwatches anymore.

For more information and discussion of the collapse of wearable technology, check out the latest issue of Factor magazine.

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