Privacy vs security: battle of ideas erupts

Tomorrow, parliament will consider a law which would allow police and spies extra powers to investigate suspected criminals and terrorists. Is privacy an overrated right in the modern world?

‘As the days go by, we end up knowing more about them than their friends and family.’

These were the words of Brett Lovegrove, a counter-terrorism expert discussing those fleeing from him on the TV show Hunted. On the show, his team raided houses, read phone records and tracked vehicles in a bid to catch fugitives.

Lovegrove is likely to be an interested observer tomorrow as the Investigatory Powers Bill is presented to parliament. The draft law proposes allowing the police and security services to track social media use closely, hack into smartphones and computers, and trace the websites suspects have visited. Home Secretary Theresa May says the bill is a response to ‘criminals and terrorists working more in the digital age’.

It is the latest government effort to consolidate or extend surveillance — or ‘snooping’ — powers. Five counter-terrorism acts have been passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001; the most recent allowed the Home Secretary to impose restrictions on people believed to be engaged in terrorism-related activity. But in 2013, the government abandoned plans to pass the Draft Communications Data Bill after the Liberal Democrats withdrew support.

The proposals promise to ignite an ongoing debate over the balance between security and privacy in the modern age. In a rare public speech last week, the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, said the threat of terrorism ‘may not yet have reached the high water mark’. But civil liberties campaigners believe the state is restricting ordinary people’s right to privacy, particularly since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of spying by Britain’s GCHQ in 2013.

Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to defend privacy; he distinguished between a public sphere in which political activity took place and the private sphere, which involved family and domestic life. The right to privacy is now enshrined in British law under Article 8 of the 1998 Human Rights Act.

Private Investigations

Richard Posner, a senior American judge, is among those to criticise the concept of privacy. Requests to be left alone should arouse our suspicion — they are often a cover for something to hide. Radical feminists, for example, arguing that ‘the personal is political’, point to the abuse and subjugation of women which privacy enables.

Sociologist Edward Bloustein and law professor Charles Fried disagree. If anyone were able to know everything about us, we would all be embarrassed and suspicious of getting close to others. George Orwell’s 1984, when ‘Big Brother is watching you’, is a dystopian warning: a life without privacy is a life without dignity or individuality.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever accept that someone could read your private messages?
  2. Should MPs pass the Investigatory Powers Bill?


  1. Write a list of measures you could take to find out if someone is a criminal or terrorist. Then discuss: are they reasonable, and would they work?
  2. Write a short sketch in which Theresa May, who is proposing the bill, meets a civil liberties campaigner. What might they say to each other?

Some People Say...

“Nothing should be private.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will someone start reading my messages?
The state can monitor your communications, but they require a warrant to undertake most measures — meaning that a judge or magistrate has to agree that it is necessary and proportionate for them to do so.
Who monitors the monitors?
In the UK, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is responsible for overseeing the work of the intelligence services — including making sure that their operational decisions are reasonable. The committee was criticised after the Snowden revelations, with some observers saying it was too weak.
Could this bill do us any good?
The key argument in favour of the measures is that they will help to protect the country from terrorism — so the bill’s proponents would say that it could save many lives.

Word Watch

Most recent
Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) were introduced in 2011, to apply to people who are suspected of terrorism offences but who cannot be prosecuted or deported. They can restrict movement, communications and financial transactions.
Draft Communications Data Bill
Opponents dubbed this ‘the Snooper’s Charter’. Theresa May insists the current bill is not as strict: it will not require companies to store data from overseas, allow police to view people’s full browsing history, or ban encryption.
Civil liberties campaigners
Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, says the Home Office is engaging in ‘a traditional dance first to ask for the most outrageous, even impractical powers, so that the smallest so-called concessions seem more reasonable’.
This stands for Government Communications Headquarters and is based in Cheltenham. Snowden revealed that GCHQ was tapping global fibreoptic cables in 2013.
Article 8
The first part of this article says: ‘everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and correspondence’.

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