A Letter from the UK: Our Surveillance Debate

The Institute for Human Rights and Business’s (IHRB) Lucy Purdon comments on discourse surrounding the Snowden revelations in the United Kingdom.

I was recently invited to the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania to present IHRB’s Digital Dangers project on the ICT sector and human rights, and to discuss with students our recent study on how Safaricom addressed the issue of hate speech during the recent elections in Kenya. While visiting the US, I was struck by the Atlantic-sized difference in the level of public debate in the US and UK following the publication of a cache of documents leaked by Edward Snowden, which revealed mass data gathering practices by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

It has been almost six months since The Guardian began publishing documents in the UK. More information has emerged regarding massive state surveillance and data sharing practices in a number of countries, followed by outrage in Europe, South America and the United States. Even though, as Snowden said, “the UK has a big dog in this fight,” protest and discussion in the UK to date has been minimal.  There has been a lack of political debate, perhaps due to the complexity of the issue, and general apathy from the public. A few other British newspapers went so far as to condemn The Guardian for acting in a way that threatens national security.

Documents outlining the NSA programme Prism showed…

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