That's right. In the United Kingdom, if you are just suspected of having downloaded illegally obtained material three times (it's known as the "three strikes" law), your Internet is cut off. Not just for you, but for your entire household. Life without the Internet, let's face it, sucks. You're not just missing out on videos of cats falling into bathtubs. You're missing out of communication, jobs, and being a 21st-century citizen. Maybe this is OK in the United Kingdom because you can move up north, become a farmer, and enjoy a few pints down at the pub every night. Or you can just get a new ISP, because the United Kingdom actually has a competitive market for ISPs. The United States, as an homage, has developed the so-called “copyright alert system.” It works much the same way as the U.K. law, but it provides for six "strikes" instead of three and has a limited appeals system, in which the burden of proof lies on the suspected customer. In the United States, though, the rights-holders monitor users for suspected copyright infringement on their own, without the aid of ISPs. So far, we haven't adopted the U.K. system in which ISPs are expected to monitor traffic and dole out their three strikes at their discretion.
These are examples of more targeted surveillance of criminal activities, though. What about untargeted mass surveillance? On June 21, one of Edward Snowden's leaks revealed that the Government Communications Headquarters, the United Kingdom's NSA equivalent, has been engaging in a staggering amount of data collection from civilians. This development generated far less fanfare than the NSA news, perhaps because the legal framework for this data collection has existed for a very long time under RIPA, and we expect surveillance in the United Kingdom. (Or maybe Americans were just living down to the stereotype of not caring about other countries.) The NSA models follow the GCHQ's very closely, though, right down to the oversight, or lack thereof.
Media have labeled the FISA court that regulates the NSA's surveillance as a "rubber-stamp" court, but it's no match for the omnipotence of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which manages oversight for MI5, MI6, and the GCHQ. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is exempt from the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act, so it doesn’t have to share a thing about its activities (FISA apparently does not have this luxury—yet). On top of that, members of the tribunal are appointed by the queen. The queen. The one with the crown who has jubilees and a castle and probably a court wizard. Out of 956 complaints to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, five have been upheld. Now that's a rubber-stamp court we can aspire to!
Or perhaps not. The future of U.S. surveillance looks very grim if we're set on following the U.K.'s lead. Across the United Kingdom, an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras, some with facial-recognition capability, keep watch on nearly the entire nation. (This can lead to some Monty Python-esque high jinks.) Washington, D.C., took its first step toward strong camera surveillance in 2008, when several thousand were installed ahead of President Obama's inauguration.
We’re still behind in other areas: Socmint, another division of the GCHQ's spying program, was developed to enable blanket surveillance across social media, complete with behavioral analysis, geo-location, and facial recognition. It's not currently known whether the NSA is engaged in similar activities, but history says if it isn’t, the powers that be are thinking about it.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
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