The Personal Border

prya basil



by Priya Basil, Author.

“Voting open,” the speaker announces. Some hands rise into the air, others fly to buzzers. “Voting closed.” A moment later the result is declared, then it’s onto the next issue of the plenary sitting and the whole ritual is repeated: “Voting open….” This is mass in the secular temple of the European Parliament at Strasbourg, each vote cast a quiet amen to democracy. I could have bowed before the elaborately simple beauty of it: the great weaponry of human hearts and brains and wills engaged, for all their differences, in a collective effort of togetherness. I wish that every British citizen could witness it. I wish the cynics would grasp that Europe is more important for us than ever.

The British are amongst the most surveilled people on the planet. Privacy International called the UK a place of “endemic surveillance”, a distinction also awarded to Russia and China. This was well before the Snowden revelations, which have unequivocally exposed how the surveillance capacity of the British state extends deep into the most intimate corners of its citizens lives and also reaches far beyond its own borders. People in Britain are indiscriminately surveilled, trailed like criminals in both virtual and real space. To be a British citizen in the UK right now is to be a suspect.

Luckily, British citizens – though we are regularly exhorted to disregard the fact – are also European citizens. Britain has no written constitution, which is partly why the government there can insist it is acting ‘within the law’ even as it engages in blanket surveillance. But we need only look to the European Declaration of Human Rights to be reminded that “everyone has the right to respect for his or her private and family life, home and communications” (Article 7) and furthermore, “everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her” (Article 8).

Of course, rights do not exist simply because they are written down somewhere. They exist when we feel and live them, and we can do that only if they are truly upheld by our institutions. In recent months the EU and its related institutions have offered the clearest signals of a political body willing to stand up for human rights in the digital age. Last year, when David Cameron’s government tried to censor reporting on the Snowden story and forced the destruction of the Guardian’s journalistic materials the Council of Europe rebuked this interference saying that, “if Russia did the same thing the media would be all over it, and the West should apply the same standards to itself”. The recent European Court ruling against indiscriminate data retention is a seminal judgment for our time. Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht believes the verdict sets a standard that not only member states, but also the rest of the world should look to. He says Europe can and must lead the way on personal data protection.

I went to Strasbourg with the writers Juli Zeh and Eva Menasse to present the Writers Against Mass Surveillance appeal to EU president Martin Schulz. The appeal, which we launched in December 2013 along with four other initiators (Ilija Trojanow, Janne Teller, Josef Haslinger and Isabel Fargo Cole), demands an end to mass surveillance and indiscriminate data collection. The appeal is signed by more than one thousand writers from over eighty countries, including six Nobel laureates, and has more than two hundred thousand signatories worldwide. We met with Mr. Schulz because he is one of the few politicians who has explicitly acknowledged the connections between mass surveillance, loss of privacy and loss of freedom, and the threat this nexus ultimately poses for democracy.

The EU is more synonymous with dismantling borders – national, trade, fiscal. But, in fact, it also stands for keeping erect the most important boundary of all: the personal border, the fundamental line of privacy between the individual and the other – be that state, corporation or lover. If Martin Schulz becomes the next European Commissioner there’s every chance he’ll spur on the EU’s efforts to ensure this border is adequately protected.

Alexander Dumas wrote that “all human wisdom is contained in these two words, Wait and Hope.” As the European election approaches I’d suggest wisdom is contained in these two words: Vote and Hope.

Foto: Personal Border (mwanasimba) via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)