The British MP Who Wants Geeks to Hijack the Politics of Surveillance

Labour politician Tom Watson encouraged attendees at the Electromagnetic Field Festival hacker con to fight surveillance policies from within.

Sep 2 2014, 1:00pm

Tom Watson MP. Image: Flickr/Lucy Watt

At a hacker conference held in the British countryside near Bletchley—home to codebreaking institution Bletchley Park and not too far from GCHQ—it's unsurprising that the politics of surveillance are on the agenda.

The first day of this year's Electromagnetic Field Festival saw several speakers bring political discourse to the outdoor weekend event, a highlight of which was Tom Watson MP's lecture, entitled, "The three main parties railroaded the Data Retention Act through in a week. Where does the fightback begin?"

Watson is one of the few British politicians that seems really sympathetic to the internet generation. A veteran Member of Parliament for the Labour Party first elected in 2001 and a fierce campaigner on privacy and digital rights, he has valuable insight into the politics that produce our surveillance society. Before he took the stage, he answered some of my questions in the shaky tent used as the festival's green room. 

Watson said he came to the festival to address the disillusionment young people feel towards politics. In spite of everything, his message was optimistic, and perhaps even constructive.

Parliament at the moment has little interest in improving privacy.

He felt undefeated about his recent viral and ultimately failed campaign against the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014. He said the law, which was controversially rushed through Parliament as "emergency legislation," bypassed normal legislative custom "to ensure that this bill didn't get proper scrutiny and public debate." 

"It usually takes at least three months to make a law," he said. The law is now active, and binds communications companies to collect metadata on everyone, store it for a year, and hand it over to government agencies without judicial warrant.

Additionally, the Data Protection Act, which covers the use and abuse of personal information, doesn't cover metadata, leaving it open to exploitation. "Other agencies not linked to criminal investigations or terrorist investigations will be able to get access to the data as well and that means that it's not just criminal, it might be a civil case involving your local council who have to be warranted to get this information—but in certain cases they can get it as well," Watson explained.

Why doesn't Parliament do something about this? "Parliament at the moment has little interest in improving privacy," he said.

My view is we're going towards a more repressive state.

Here was an MP looking for allies among the geeks. "I see the genesis of a mass movement," he said. "My aim at this festival this weekend is—with hundreds of people involved in the tech world, be they sort of enthusiasts or professionals who I hope share my views on this—to discuss how we can fight back within political parties."

He feels that although some MPs don't understand the full scope of recent warrantless surveillance legislation, "a lot of people knew what they were voting for on both sides of the House." Among them were some of his Labour colleagues. "Michael Dugher [Labour MP for Barnsley East and Shadow Cabinet Secretary]—saw it as a straight issue of national security and he said we were not serious unless Labour supported this legislation. I fundamentally disagree with him."

Watson didn't attend EMF on behalf of the Labour Party, and he sounded more like he was canvassing support for the modern democratic system of party politics in general. 

Throughout his career he's resigned from the frontbench several times and has almost got kicked out on more than one occasion. He's regarded by some of his peers as a childish idealist and outsider not to be trusted in heavy power games. "My view is we're going towards a more repressive state," he told me.

Join the political party that's disappointed you least and you most identify with.

Watson's speech was an impassioned call to action for attendees to join the political class and change it from within. Apparently, it's much easier than it seems. "Some people are getting selected with 90 votes," he said in regard to running for Parliament on behalf of a local party. And sometimes they succeed.

He went on to say that, for some people, politics has become "a quaint affection for an anachronistic notion." He thinks that's an ill-informed attitude because politics "has huge impact on our lives."

According to Watson, the main reason why so many young people—especially those interested in electronic communication—are feeling disowned by the current political system is because they refuse to engage with it. "Join the political party that's disappointed you least and you most identify with. It doesn't really matter," he said.

Can this generation infiltrate politics and hijack it for the benefit of a more open, outward-looking world? "Get 200 people to join their local parties and take them over," Watson suggested.

Some people clearly think so.