There was a recent article circulated that sums up a troubling development in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Bill was recently passed into law legalising government behaviour in the UK that enables the government total invasive access into the online lives of everyone within its borders.
The passing of this bill is troubling but what is worse is the level of general support in the population for such a thing. If someone asked to view your private online history, your emails and location at all times most would balk and refuse out of principle. Yet when this is written on a piece of paper by politicians this behaviour is now somehow deemed acceptable in the name of security. Every terrorist attack, or threat of terrorist attack has been used to sway public support for the erosion of digital liberty and anonymity.
I wonder what the eventual destination of this trajectory is that we are on. Today there are few bodies or authorities that exist outside the state to protect the individual. Institutions that were hard fought for have been stripped back over time as the role of the state has grown largely unquestioned. Privacy isn’t a natural state and a relatively recent thing but so is the extent to which the state determines how one lives now. The image that increasingly comes to mind concerning the internet is that of the Panopticon. Foucault wrote on the subject…
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so.
Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism.” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
In the Panopticon the idea that an individual might be being watched is enough to bring their behaviour under the desired influence of the captor. Likewise the very potential that you are being watched by the government will influence your behaviour towards the government increasing rates of self-censorship and being unwilling to step outside of mainstream opinion. This also means that when you are placed within the Panopticon you are less likely to verbalise opposition to such monitoring than had you not been monitored at all. Something that is generally known as ‘The Spiral of Silence’. This is why the power of anonymity on the internet was so important to those with minority views and beliefs. It gave them the means to speak in a fashion that wasn’t censored, not by themselves or anyone else. In some ways it’s the same reason I started to write here. I wanted to process and externalise my thoughts in a way I wouldn’t if I had to do such a thing in public. The steps of the UK government with the passing of this bill promise that this is all beginning to change.
As according to the law of nature each must be born free … many of our common people have fallen into servitude and diverse conditions which very much displease us; we, considering that our kingdom is called … the kingdom of the Franks [free men], and wishing that the fact should be truly accordant with the name … have ordered and order that … such servitudes be brought back to freedom …
Louis X of France
I do not think it a coincidence that as Britain moves away from being a society where people are sincere Christians that we increasingly live in an age in which others attempt to determine the thoughts and beliefs of others. If the popular consensus is that we are determined by our biology, that we are fleshy machines, it’s not a great step to believe that we might as well begin to determine one another. That might seem disingenuous to the sincere beliefs of determinists, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to make an argument on the basis of abstract rights. What good are principles where the mind itself is ultimately an accident of evolution? If we think we are machines we begin to treat each other like machines.
We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us
Father John Culkin
Why do the nations say,
‘Where is their God?’
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
All of this might seem hyperbolic or alarmist but I think there is a genuine reason to be unwelcoming of these changes in practice by the authorities. More so that there are grounds for a critical Christian position on these matters. The often quoted mantra is “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” but we know people are fallible and our salvation ultimately won’t come from any man-made institution, no matter the security we are promised. To give any institution so much power is to invite abuse. The pursuit of utopia consistently has lead to its very opposite.
In an age where we are increasingly living digital lives I think there’s an argument from these recent changes to moderate our interactions with the online world. An element of sobriety and vigilance online is not only a spiritual good but a practical one too. If we believe in the liberty of individuals there are also avenues here to interact with others concerned with these issues too. Not because we wish to hide who we are, but because we believe people are more than numbers to be watched and moderated by the state. Is it too much to say such an invasion into the lives of individuals is a sin? I don’t think so, by doing this we are failing to love our neighbour.