What’s Next for U.S. Surveillance? Ask the English.

What's to come?
July 1 2013 8:00 AM

What's Next for U.S. Surveillance?

Look to jolly old England!

Britain's Queen Elizabeth arrives for Ladies' Day at the Royal Ascot horse-racing festival at Ascot, southern England June 20, 2013.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth arrives for Ladies' Day at the Royal Ascot horse-racing festival at Ascot, southern England June 20, 2013.

Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters

We adore the English here in the States. They're just so precious! They call traffic circles "roundabouts," prostitutes "prozzies," and they have a queen. They're ever so polite and carry themselves with such admirable poise. We love their accents so much, we use them in historical films to give them a bit more gravitas. (Just watch The Last Temptation of Christ to see what happens when we don't: Judas doesn't sound very intimidating with a Brooklyn accent.)

What's not so cute is the surveillance society they've built—but the U.S. government seems pretty enamored with it. 

The United Kingdom is home to an intense surveillance system. Most of the legal framework for this comes from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which dates all the way back to the year 2000. RIPA is meant to support criminal investigation, preventing disorder, public safety, public health, and, of course, "national security." If this extremely broad application of law seems familiar, it should: The United States' own PATRIOT Act is remarkably similar in scope and application. Why should the United Kingdom have the best toys, after all?

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This is one of the problems with being the United Kingdom’s younger sibling. We always want what Big Brother has. Unless it's soccer. Wiretaps, though? We just can't get enough!

The PATRIOT Act, broad as it is, doesn't match RIPA's incredible wiretap allowances. In 1994, the United States passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which mandated that service providers give the government "technical assistance" in the use of wiretaps. RIPA goes a step further and insists that wiretap capability be implemented right into the system. If you're a service provider and can't set up plug-and-play wiretap capability within a short time, Johnny English comes knocking at your door to say, " 'Allo, guvna! I 'ear tell you 'aven't put in me wiretaps yet. Blimey! We'll jus' 'ave to give you a hefty fine! Ods bodkins!" Wouldn't that be awful (the law, not the accent)? It would, and it's just what the FBI is hoping for. CALEA is getting a rewrite that, if it passes, would give the FBI that very capability

I understand. Older siblings always get the new toys, and it's only natural that we want to have them as well. But why does it have to be legal toys for surveillance? Why can't it be chocolate? The United Kingdom enjoys chocolate that's almost twice as good as American chocolate. Literally, they get 20 percent solid cocoa in their chocolate bars, while we suffer with a measly 11 percent. Instead, we're learning to shut off the Internet for entire families.

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