Government surveillance from Caesar to Nixon

Patrick O’Kane, barrister and compliance counsel
Patrick O’Kane, barrister and compliance counsel

Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez famously said: “All human beings have three lives: public, private and secret.” That was before the digital age. The boundaries between the three lives are becoming increasingly blurred.

Today, the UK government introduced the Investigatory Powers Bill to Parliament. The bill details proposed police powers to access the internet data of ordinary citizens. The bill aims to thwart fraudsters and terrorists by surveilling their online activities. 

The codes of practice of the bill describe how the authorities may apply for records relating to:

  • The communications services used by an individual
  • Internet services used to access or make available illegal material; or
  • The other internet services a person is using.

This raises the question about the circumstances under which law enforcement can apply for a warrant under the bill. The Home Secretary has spoken about the “double lock” procedure whereby the Secretary of State and a judge will have to approve a warrant before law enforcement can view these sensitive records.

On the face of it, the law seems to give the authorities a vast power to see what members of the public are viewing on the internet.

Much overstatement has flowed today since the unveiling of the Bill. Many supporters of the bill talk of how the bill is “necessary” in the modern age in order to protect the public. Opponents of the bill have spoken of how this government surveillance is unprecedented.

Government surveillance is, however, not new. From Julius Caesar's spy ring to try to uncover the many plots against him through to Richard Nixon phone tapping the people on his infamous “enemies list”, where there have been governments, there has been surveillance. This feels like a new debate only because modern technology has given governments the ability to surveil on a mass scale. ”Technology is just a tool” Bill Gates once said. We just need to be careful how it is used.


Patrick O'Kane has written for a number of publications on compliance issues, including Global Reinsurance Magazine, Payments Compliance Journal, Technethics, Lexis PSL, The Corporate Counselor, The Mining Journal and The Irish News.
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