Among all the questions talking about the consequences of a British exit from the European Union, one seems to have been unanswered: how does this affect your fundamental rights and privacy, no matter where you are on the globe?
As Edward Snowden stated, and many had observed before him, mass surveillance is not and was never a matter of law enforcement or “chasing terrorists”. It is, and was always, a game of geopolitical dominance: industrial espionage, economic sabotage, et cetera. Therefore, Britain’s assumed exit from the EU has repercussions for ordinary people worldwide who want to keep their privacy.
(Not to mention, it also has repercussions for people in Britain itself.)
The United Kingdom is already considered an Endemic Surveillance Society – the worst possible grade – by the international think tank Privacy International, which ranks countries worldwide on a number of factors. Britain has been regularly criticized and ruled against by various supranational courts on this matter, something that has led British lawmakers not to make amends, but to state that these supranational courts should not be able to overrule a British court or other authority, as is the case today.
At present, there are two important such courts – or redress instances for individuals against a state, if you will. These are the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Both deal with human rights cases (such as privacy), and overlap to a large degree in this judicial competence. The ECJ is the EU’s highest court, and will not have power over Britain after a Brexit. The ECHR, however, is part of something called the Council of Europe, where Britain has not indicated a desire to secede – but has indicated that the ECHR should not have any power over Britain, as spoofed by this Guardian video.
The reason the courts are so important in this discussion, is that they have served as the last line of defense against violations of human rights (including privacy) for the past two decades or so. While executive branches of government happily go overboard in break all rules, and legislators are anxious to look tough on crime by abolishing liberty for ordinary people, it’s been the judiciary that has upheld that liberty for the last generation. For example, the ECJ declared that countries (member states) in the EU are not obliged to have mass surveillance of its citizens, by declaring the Data Retention Directive null and void.
And on July 19, the same ECJ is expected to rule that no EU country is allowed to have mass surveillance of its citizens – a decision Britain is now choosing to not be bound by, and therefore able to continue violating privacy wholesale.
So we can observe that Britain is taking itself the right to keep being an endemic surveillance society, even when courts rule it not to, as part of a Brexit. This obviously matters to people living in Britain, but it also affects people living anywhere else on the planet, in at least four important ways.
First, a lot of Internet traffic is passing through Britain. And the GCHQ wiretaps, and stores, all of it, for as long as their rotating buffer can hold. All of it. Some parts are picked out, and stored much (much) longer, for closer analysis. This happens for people globally who happen to have their traffic routed through Britain, which is a routing outside of their control, even if they’re in Chile and they’re accessing a server in Switzerland.
Second, a lot of authorities have data-exchange agreements in place with their counterparts in other countries to circumvent a ban against mass surveillance of their own citizens/residents. (This is a categorical and deliberate misreading of “human rights” as “citizens’ rights”, meaning that human rights only apply in practice to the humans currently residing in a particular area, and not at all to other members of the species.) This means that even if your country has strong privacy safeguards in place, a data exchange agreement can be enough to negate your privacy where you live.
Third, there is a geopolitical game at play with striving for the best information advantage – knowing more about anybody else than what they know about you. Industrial espionage, geopolitical espionage. The NSA is one player in this game, and so is the British GCHQ, along with many others. Declaring Britain to go unchecked is throwing down the glove to other players to up their own mass surveillance game, legally or illegally (or more commonly outside of the law entirely).
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, when we’re striving for developing nations and emerging states to adopt strong privacy safeguards and other human rights, and there’s a so-called First World country with a horrible abuse record of privacy rights, these emerging states can proudly and confidently say “we’re just as good as good ole Britain” and consider themselves done. The situation makes it very hard to improve human rights around the world without having any moral high ground to operate from, in a governmental sense.
Privacy remains your own responsibility.