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.

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.