How personal communications data becomes a national security risk

On 29th November 2016 the Investigatory Powers Bill became UK Law by Royal Assent (1). The bill’s 245 pages codified the U.K. government’s plans to create a statutory basis for the country’s mass surveillance, data retention, and remote intrusion practices.

The IP Act updates the prior legislation which gave a legal basis for activities including wiretapping, undercover officers and bugging houses/vehicles, with provisions enabling the UK government to secretly order to provide user data, manipulate the service of a user and hack a device (2). Home Secretary Amber Rudd has said of the Bill that it is “world-leading legislation” that provides “unprecedented transparency and substantial privacy protection”. In response Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group has said:

“She is right, it is one of the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a democracy. The IP Act will have an impact that goes beyond the UK’s shores. It is likely that other countries, including authoritarian regimes with poor human rights records, will use this law to justify their own intrusive surveillance powers.” (3)

Communications data was weaponised with phenomenon like The Enigma Machine, the mechanised cypher used by the German forces to communicate in WWII. The breaking of the cypher gave the Allied forces strategic advantage for the remainder of the conflict and exemplifies how communications data can be linked to security. But this was military information, at what point did the discussions we have in private become a matter of state interest?

In their article ‘The Vulnerability of Vital Systems’, Collier and Lakoff trace how the development of strategic bombing theory led to the problematisation and subsequent inclusion of infrastructure into the US National Defense Strategy (4). They draw on Foucault to explain that ‘problematisation occurs when something has “happened to introduce uncertainty, a loss of familiarity; that loss, that uncertainty is the result of difficulties in our previous way of understanding, acting, relating” (5).’

Against a backdrop of fears of terror attacks, legislation such as the IP Bill suggest the digital information of an individual is problematised into a security risk. The law is intended as a way to amalgamate the distributed security risk posed by this communications data into a consolidated entity that can be rationalised. This can be seen with the recent interactions between the UK government and encrypted communications platforms such as Whatsapp.

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 17.34.10

Source: BBC, The Andrew Marr Show, Sunday 26 March 2017

Polls ran by  iTélé, Ifop and Le Figaro immediately after the Paris attacks showed that a majority of French citizens were willing to relinquish personal liberty for a sense of ‘safety’ (6). This is an example of an individual accepting social responsibility for a national defense. These dialogues are thrown into further relief amid current discussions around the White House investigating screening of social media accounts  at airports. This is indicative of the digital self becoming directly relevant to the idea of ‘national security’.

While this is a highly complex area, this raises a range of anthropological questions such as what does this mean for people’s understanding of their role in the nation, or indeed their conception of the nation itself? How does it affect people’s understanding of social boundaries and the definition of the ‘other’, the identification of the enemy within and the enemy without?


  1. (accessed on 02.02.17)
  2. (accessed on 02.02.17)
  3. (accessed on 02.02.17)
  4. Dunn Cavelty, M.M.N. & Kristensen, Kristian Søby, editor. (2008) Securing ‘the homeland’ : critical infrastructure, risk and (in)security, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. London
  5. Foucault, M. (1994) Dits et Ecrits, 1954-1988, Paris: Gallimard.
  6. (accessed on 02.02.17)

Image via Shutterstock


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s