British PM Theresa May is the Enemy of Online Privacy

May's latest outburst in the wake of terrorist attacks in London is just the latest round of a bitter, long-running personal vendetta against online privacy.

Theresa May
Paul Newham
By Paul Newham

The morning after the London Bridge terror attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May returned to a pet theme. As families mourned the victims of the June 3 atrocity, which left seven people dead and 48 injured, she chose to make a point about online privacy and surveillance.

“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” she said, referring to Islamic extremism. “Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide.”

May has long been an enemy of online privacy. According to her, legitimate privacy protections which most of us expect – encrypted messages and personal data, not allowing any Tom, Dick or Harry to snoop on what we’re doing – make the internet a breeding ground for terrorism and Islamic extremism.

She has long fought to strip away those protections entirely, and give the state unfettered access to what every citizen gets up to online. Your safety and mine, she claims, depend on it.

These are arguments designed to play on emotions. But the claim that mass online surveillance will somehow stamp out the terrorist threat is, at best, naive. At worst, they are a cynical ploy intended to play on people’s fears.

May’s surveillance legacy

May spent most of her time in office as Home Secretary pushing for increased state control of the internet. She has never been shy of playing the terror card.

In 2014, as she set out her plans to massively increase government powers to spy on what UK citizens get up to online, she called internet surveillance “a matter of life and death”, citing the threat posed by British jihadists returning from Syria.

A year earlier, she had shown how willing she was to use terror to justify repressive behavior by the state. She strongly defended the detention of a journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act 2000, claiming he may have had material ‘useful to terrorists’ on his laptop. Police were looking for documents from the Snowden leaks, which Greenwald had helped publish.

May has a long history of using terror to excuse repressive behavior and chip away at your right to privacy.

You’d think May would be happy with her legacy on state surveillance. The plans she drew up as Home Secretary, which became known as the Snooper’s Charter, were passed as law in 2016.

Among the many powers it handed to government and the state security apparatus, the Investigatory Powers Act forces internet companies to store records of every person’s online activity, and hand them over on request. Authorities can force ISPs to break encryption so they can read the contents of private messages. Government spooks can now even hack into your mobile phone and plant malware on your devices.

Unsurprisingly, these have been described as some of the most extreme and repressive online surveillance measures introduced anywhere in the world.

And yet, given her comments in the wake of the London Bridge attack, it sounds like May, now Prime Minister, wants to go even further.

What does May want?

A few days after the London Bridge attack, May stated that she would be prepared to tear up human rights legislation if it ‘got in the way’ of counter-terrorism measures.

She is known critic of the European Convention of Human Rights, which protects UK citizens from things like indefinite detention without charge. It also gives people the right to challenge surveillance measures in a court of law.

May is also known to be unhappy with how far the Snoopers Charter goes on messaging service encryption. She wanted to ban encryption outright, so the contents of every private message could be read automatically, but had to water down the proposals after a fierce battle with the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp. May’s successor as Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, recently called end-to-end encryption on messaging apps “completely unacceptable”.

Flawed logic

May’s thinking boils down to this. If you remove privacy protection from the internet completely, then terrorists have nowhere to hide. If you store the records of every page hit, every message sent, every form filled in by every citizen, unencrypted, then state security services will be able to see what the bad guys are doing.

In May’s world, the price of safety is Big Brother-scale surveillance.

But this belief that mass surveillance will defeat terrorism is deeply flawed. Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who opened the lid on the NSA’s covert spying on US citizens, argued that a preoccupation with mass surveillance had caused security services to miss important clues in the lead up to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

Mass surveillance generates so much data for authorities to sift through that it becomes harder to fight terror. May has no answer to this.

What May does not bother to explain is how security services are meant to cope with sifting through billions and billions of online records and messages, looking for the one that helps them identify a terrorist.

People talk about data mining, the sort of analytics techniques used to target online advertising and predict voter patterns. But data profiling is far from perfect. When you are sending people ads for hair products, you can afford to make a few mistakes. No one can accept the same margin for error when looking for a terrorist.

The truth is, the security services are already pretty good at identifying who is and who is not a terrorist, and they stop a lot more attacks than actually take place. Would extra surveillance make any difference to the few that slip through the net, when their identities are known already?

Mass surveillance could even make things worse, forcing more and more terrorists deeper underground into the recesses of the dark web, and clouding the profiling and detection process with a glut of information.

So where does May’s thinking come from?

The conclusion has to be that Theresa May’s views on internet surveillance are ideological, and do not stem from a careful, considered opinion on how best to combat terrorism. Aside from being an opponent of online privacy, she is a known advocate of censorship and regulation, with zealous views on everything from pornography to content distribution.

If you want to get a full picture on May’s views on the internet, look no further than her manifesto for the recent UK General Election, where she set out clearly her position on state regulation and control.

To sum up, Theresa May does not believe that what individuals do online is their own business. She strongly advocates censorship, regulation and surveillance, and wants most of the privacy protections we take for granted removed.

So next time she argues that abolishing online privacy will protect you from terrorism, ask yourself this – does she really care that deeply about your safety and security at heart? Or is she using terrorism as a cynical ploy to justify her repressive views on personal freedom and individual rights?

Main image credit: Donkey Hotey