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Majority of Britons support government surveillance for national security

A survey reveals that a majority of UK citizens support government surveillance for national security as Apple attempts to rally public support in its row with the FBI over encryption

A survey has revealed that the majority of the UK population (60%) believe that, when it comes to national security, the government should be able to monitor mass communications. 

Nearly half of the 1,000 UK adults polled said national security is more important than an individual’s right to privacy, according to the study commissioned by pro-consumer website Comparitech.

While 47% said they believe the government intercepts their communications, 42% said they would not care if that were the case. 

“Given the high-profile spat between Apple and the FBI over the data held on an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernadino shooters, an individual’s right to privacy has once again been called into question,” said Richard Patterson, director of Comparitech.com. 

“Tensions are high between the tech industry and government, with many facets to the argument. However, while we wait for the final outcome from the current legal wrangling, for now it appears that public opinion is in favour of the UK government snooping on its citizens in the interest of national security.”

Amar Singh, chair of Isaca UK security advisory group, said it is worrying that so many of those surveyed are willing to sacrifice their civil liberties and privacy for claims of protection.

Apple versus the FBI

“If technologies are updated to allow free access for the government, then criminals will no doubt be able to obtain the same,” he said, commenting on the US government’s attempt to force Apple to create software that would give it access to the San Bernardino gunman’s iPhone.  

Tech firms have come out in support of Apple’s stand against the US government. Apple is concerned about creating a dangerous precedent by complying with a court order to create a custom firmware file to enable the FBI to bypass or disable the auto-erase function and brute-force crack the gunman’s iPhone passcode to access and decrypt data stored on the device.

The US government claimed the order is limited in scope because it is confined to opening a particular iPhone in a single case, but in Apple’s latest move to block the order the company’s lawyers said in court documents that if the order is permitted to stand, “it will only be a matter of days before some other prosecutor, in some other important case, before some other judge, seeks a similar order using this case as precedent”.

Arguing constitutional rights, Phys.org reported that Apple’s lawyers said the government would be “conscripting Apple to develop software that does not exist and that Apple has a compelling interest in not creating” and that writing software is protected free expression so forcing it to create new software would be “compelled speech and viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment”.

Some commentators say Apple is going down the constitutional route to invoke emotive issues such as freedom of speech to get public opinion on its side.

UK citizens trust government surveillance to protect against terror threats

According to the Comparitech survey, 77% of respondents believe the UK government should be allowed to intercept communications that are related to terrorism, with 65% in agreement about when to uncover criminal activity. 

While 44% agreed that the government should be able to intercept communications relating to tax evasion, only 17% said authorities should be allowed to listen in if a parent was concerned about a child.

Rik Turner, senior analyst at Ovum, said it is interesting that the survey results show that the UK public is more comfortable with being spied on by government than people in the US and Germany.

“Leaving aside the historical and cultural explanations for this, the fact is that it puts the UK government in a better position to act against terror threats than many of its counterparts and, as such, means we should demand higher levels of efficacy from it in the war on terror,” he said.

“If the public is prepared to sacrifice its privacy in the name of protection from terrorism, the government can’t blame privacy laws for failing to detect a threat.”

Bob Tarzey, analyst and director at Quocirca, said the results did not surprise him because half the respondents were probably overestimating the amount of interest the government is already taking in their communications and most are not that bothered.

“The government has currently far more limited access than they might imagine, both legally and practically, and most people feel they have little to hide and recognise the government’s need to use communication data to monitor for threats,” he said.

However, Tarzey said there needs to be a practical balance between individual privacy and government having sufficient access to data to protect its citizens. “The drafters of the Investigatory Powers Bill need to work out where the line should be drawn,” he said.

Investigatory Powers Bill needs to be clear

The proposed bill has come under strong criticism for its lack of clarity, particularly around privacy protection, by three parliamentary committee reviews and representatives of technology firms.

The government now has an opportunity to re-draft the bill in response to the findings of the inquiries conducted into the original draft.  

Whatever the outcome of the re-drafting process and the battle between Apple and the FBI, Patterson said it is clear that individuals need to understand that using electronic communications comes with provisos.

“On the one hand, laws designed to protect civil liberties shouldn’t then be used to provide a safe haven for those compelled to breach them, and on the other, consumers shouldn’t have to give up their rights to privacy. It’s a thorny subject, with many grey areas, making clarity a necessity,” he said.

Read more about the draft Investigatory Powers Bill

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