Olivia Cappucini interview: Is bulk surveillance really necessary?

Alice Muir

Olivia Cappuccini is the founder of Scenes of Reason, an independent media outlet which has produced a documentary investigating the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) and the affects that it may have on the wider public

THE Haystack documentary, which has been produced by Scenes of Reason, an independent media outlet which aims to produce news content in its simplest form, investigates the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill), legislation which proposes to give the government and the secret services the power to access information held online about the general public. There will be a screening of The Haystack documentary from 6.15pm this evening at the CCA in Glasgow.

“We analyse what the media is talking about,” Cappuccini explains to CommonSpace. “We saw that the draft IP Bill was going to be heavily debated yet we felt there was not a lot of coverage of it in mainstream media. Therefore we saw this as a good opportunity to explore a complex issue which affects all of us.”

Scenes of Reason founder, Olivia Cappucini

Both Privacy International and Open Democracy collaborated on the project, which also features ex-NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, as well as former GCHQ director Sir David Omand. “We wanted to make a balanced argument with regards to mass surveillance,” explains Cappuccini. “We really wanted to be told that these powers were essential. However, what we found was that one side of the argument (the argument against mass surveillance) was more heavily weighted with factual information than the other side.”

The Haystack documentary highlights a number of key issues with the IP Bill, including the conflict between public security and limited privacy. “We came to the conclusion that greater security should not mean less privacy, these are two separate issues which should not be married together,” says Cappuccini.

“A lot of privacy/civil liberties groups want us to have greater security. However, the greater problem is about what types of security are used. i.e targeted surveillance as opposed to mass surveillance.”

“The problem with the issue of data privacy is convincing the general public that they should be concerned about their online privacy.” Olivia Cappucini

A major controversy surrounding the IP Bill is the fact that research suggested that targeted and bulk surveillence does not prevent terrorist attacks. Both ex-NSA whistleblower Bill Binney and former director of human rights organisation, Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, have made this argument.

“The Haystack highlights the problem with the issue of data privacy in convincing the general public that they should be concerned about their online privacy.

“A lot of people dismiss this issue as not affecting them, or on the basis that because they are not doing anything wrong therefore they have nothing to worry about. In fact the IP Bill, if passed in parliament, will give the secret services the power to hack into the devices of anyone with whom they have an interest in,” Cappuccini explains.

The Haystack docucumentary producers

“The problem with hacking is that malware, software which is designed to disrupt or damage a computer system, is used to hack into the devices, and malware can often weaken the security of the device for which it has been used. This creates the problem of making devices more easily hackable by criminals.”

Civil liberties groups have also opposed this aspect of the Bill, explaining that it is not clear in the legislation when it is acceptable for the government and security services to hack into devices and when it is not acceptable. The Bill suggests that hacking is acceptable where there are “issues of national security”, however it does not specify what those might be.

“With The Haystack documentary, we are not trying to scaremonger people, and it is true that surveillance doesn’t affect most people,” Cappuccini goes on. 

“However I would urge people to be mindful of who it does affect. Journalists, lawyers and minority ethnic groups are particularly targeted by surveillance. Political anarchists can also be subject to targeted surveillance. So the issue of surveillance may not affect you directly but if you have a friend or someone that you are associated with who is a political anarchist, it’s likely that your name will be added to some kind of watch list.

“It’s not nice to know that you might be caught up in a web which will subsequently tell the secret services what your interests are, who you speak to, what your faith is. Is that really necessary?”

“I would urge people to be mindful of who it does affect. Journalist, lawyers and minority ethnic groups are particularly targeted by surveillance.” Olivia Cappucini

As an alternative to mass surveillence, judicial reviews of cases where surveillence may be used has started to be introduced. However, Cappuccini explains that she is not sure whether introducing an independent body is a good or bad thing. The requirement of two bodies, i.e. both the government and a judicial body, to agree to targeted surveillance, may slow down a process which requires immediacy. It is also not clear what would happen in instances where the judiciary and the government disagree. It’s not clear who would get the last say.

“Surveillence needs to be spoken about in the media more often,” Cappuccini adds. “At the moment it is not high enough on the media agenda in light of Brexit and the recent terror attacks in Western Europe.

“The media in general should want an effective and fair IP Bill as it affects journalists directly. When we distributed the documentary to certain media outlets we received hardly any interest, however we have not given up. The documentary has been screened in every city in the UK, which will hopefully encourage people to join the debate.”

The screening will take place on Wednesday 17 August 2016 from 6.15pm-8pm at the Centre for Contemporary Arts.

Book your tickets here.

Picture courtesy of Olivia Cappucini/Scenes of Reason

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