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British Taxpayers Are Funding the UK's Mass Surveillance Program

The full figures have not been made public, but the costs of the program have been estimated at around $17.27 billion.

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This article originally appeared on VICE UK

In 2013, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the British government had been snooping on citizens on a mass scale. Every email entering and leaving this supposedly modern, democratic, and accountable country was being secretly intercepted, all in the interest of "national security"—which is totally justified, of course; people planning terror plots routinely send each other "just spilt some of the liquid explosive on my foot lol" memos from their unencrypted Hotmail accounts.


Over a seven-day period last July, things got worse. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act—which demands that communications companies retain their customers' data for up to 12 months—was rushed into being. If a government department makes a request, they are now allowed to access the details of any text, call, email, tweet, Instagram post, or Facebook update they like.

What this means, of course, is that your inane Twitter ramblings about Philip Schofield's weirdly smooth face have likely been viewed by a bigger audience than your 163 followers. But even worse is the huge amount of money being poured into this process.

"The costs of interception are largely met by the government, who pay service providers money to put in place the technology and processes to intercept emails," says David Mulcahy, a spokesperson for civil liberties campaign group Liberty. "We don't know the amount spent by government on this, but a report revealed that, in practice, it pays for 80 percent of the capital cost of new interception capabilities and 100 percent of the ongoing operational costs."

The full figures have not been made public, but the costs of the program have been estimated at around £11.1 billion [$17.27 billion]—a little more than the optimistic £1.8 billion [$2.8 billion] estimate back in 2012. "As far as I am aware, there was no explanation at the time as to how the figure of £1.8 billion was calculated," says Mike Jackson, a business professor at Birmingham City University. "Essentially, this was viewed as the amount internet companies would need to be compensated over 10 years for the additional effort of storing records."


The £1.8 billion figure supposedly took into account data retention by communications companies, training investigators, strategic work to cope with new and emerging technologies, and identification of (but not solutions for) the technical and operational challenges of the surveillance program. However, it failed to consider the cost of inflation, VAT, and depreciation, as well as the growing volume of data being transmitted and received in the UK. The government also didn't consult with communications service providers to calculate its figures, prompting companies like Vodafone, Twitter, Microsoft, and Facebook to question—and then distance themselves—from the estimate. Lord Marks QC, a Liberal Democrat peer, made his own calculations based on Labour's nixed plans to introduce national ID cards, and estimated an overrun of £9.3 billion [$14.47 billion] taking the total cost of the bill up to £11.1 billion [$17.27 billion]—or £500 [$778] per household—over ten years.

David Cameron has made it clear that tax rises are not on the agenda over the course of this parliament, but it's still the taxpayer who bears the brunt of this enormous and unnecessary expense. "A rise in the cost of accessing internet and mobile services has to be the [ultimate] outcome. Rather than raising direct taxes to pay for the defense of the realm, the government is effectively paying for it by indirect taxation," Jackson tells me. "Whatever the actual costs, there is an inevitability that, at some point, providers will be expected to meet them alone and charge the consumers an additional amount to meet them."


So, at present, a huge chunk of taxpayers' money is being spent on what is fundamentally a series of private contracts for commercial companies to conduct surveillance on the whole British population. And as soon as citizens stop paying through taxation, they'll be hit with extra charges from communications companies.

"The question is whether this generates a reasonable return on investment, given the financial costs involved, as well as the undoubted erosion to the privacy of individuals which it entails," says Mark Deem, a partner at legal firm Cooley in London. "The creation of data is rising at an exponential rate. More data has been created within the past two years than had ever existed before, and this trend is likely to continue. Whilst the cost of storage of data may be declining, the cost of genuine surveillance and interrogation of an ever-increasing data is not."

Jim Killock from Open Rights group, a community of digital rights campaigners, echoes the same concerns over surveillance costs and justifications. "It's hard to see that the expense is a better use of money than more police or investigators. Somehow, mass surveillance seems like a great government hope to do law enforcement on the cheap, and it won't work," he says. "It's more than just retention; it will be collection and analysis. Once it's in place, it will be hard to stop investigators asking to use 'predictive' pattern analysis, which opens up profiling and checking of the whole population."


The whole approach and methodology is also a cause for concern. One of the biggest issues is the request for communications companies to create "backdoors" into their products to make them accessible to security services, government departments, and local authorities. "The clear consensus among the technology sector is that any back-door into encryption has the potential to undermine security, rather than enhance it," Deem tells me. "There is little evidence at the moment that the government is taking this threat seriously."

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Mulcahy also identifies this as an area of contention, as well as whether the government can be trusted to use and protect our data responsibly: "It's extremely worrying that the state can hack into computers and that the Prime Minister has called for an end to encryption. When technological weaknesses are in place on our computers and systems, not only can the state use them, but so can criminals and other governments. So we are faced with the possibility of not only the state misusing our private information, but lots of people doing so."

Where there are genuine concerns over criminal and terrorist activities, it's easy to see why some level of targeted surveillance is necessary. But there aren't many who would argue that local councils should be able to spend taxpayers' money on accessing private data to assess whether a family are within a school's catchment area—which, in essence, is what current legislation allows. If bodies like the police want to access this type of information, they don't even have to go to a judge for a warrant—they can get permission from another part of the same organization.


Liberty has taken the government to court to challenge these mass surveillance programs, and the case will now proceed to the Court of Human Rights. The organization wants to see changes to current laws and more attention paid to privacy implications in deciding how to tackle serious crime. "The state should only be able to access our information if a judge authorizes it, and they should only be able to access it for a very good and serious reason—those requirements simply aren't in place at the moment," Mulcahy says.

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David Anderson's government-commissioned report last month concluded that current surveillance legislation in the UK is "undemocratic, unnecessary, and—in the long run—intolerable," and recommended that it be replaced with a new comprehensive law that is both transparent and proportionate. But it's already clear that some of the report's most important observations and suggestions are set to be rejected. "Government reaction to the report indicates that they are likely to disregard it and strengthen surveillance powers. In particular, they may be minded to puts limits on the strength of encryption that citizens are permitted to use," Jackson says.

Killock believes that larger political conflicts should be at the forefront of considerations when deciding what kind of anti-terrorism policies to introduce. "Let's try targeted surveillance and investigation first. But let's also remember that terrorism is firstly a political problem. While Iraq, Syria, and Libya are in chaos, we have real breeding grounds for terrorism," he says. "No amount of internet surveillance will deal with that. In many ways, it makes the situation worse, as surveillance sends the message that large parts of our community cannot be trusted and instead must be watched."

When the International Monetary Fund is calling inequality "the defining challenge of our time," it's difficult to understand why so much money is being spent on invading the privacy of citizens, when it could instead be spent on improving the lives of those same citizens.

"If we want to live in a free and safe world, we need our politicians to understand and accept the values of a targeted and proportionate system," Mulcahy tells me. "Mass surveillance, shutting down free speech, and trying to scrap the Human Rights Act do not send the message that we are a modern and tolerant democracy. How can we fight terror if we don't live the values we want others to respect?"

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