Labour should care not just for human rights but our right to privacy


3:06 pm - July 4th 2013

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by Ed Paton-Williams

This week Sadiq Khan MP signalled that Labour were re-committing to human rights.

In front of an Unlock Democracy debate in Parliament, he rightly praised Labour’s first term successes – The Human Rights Act, freedom of information and the Supreme Court. But Labour later “got the balance wrong” on citzens’ freedom and security.

Now he wants Ed Miliband’s Labour to, “stand up for the rights of our citizens – holding to account politicians and public authorities, taking on vested interests”. It was really good stuff and engaging seriously with human rights issues sets him apart from too many Labour MPs.

He has a blind spot though. In 2000, Labour passed RIPA – the major British law governing surveillance. It’s RIPA that’s behind many of Edward Snowden’s revelations over the past few weeks. RIPA lets British intelligence agencies tap the world’s Internet data as it reaches British shores. GCHQ stores all that data for 3 days and the information about where you are, who you contact and which sites you visit for 30 days.

RIPA enables the UK to share PRISM’s findings. If you use the Internet, RIPA means you’re under surveillance. Sadiq said yesterday that RIPA is “great but out of date.” (I’ll give it to him. That’s a decent soundbite.)

But he’s wrong. RIPA isn’t great. It’s letting GCHQ carry out mass surveillance on the web’s 2 billion users regardless of whether they’ve done anything wrong.

That’s a huge invasion of privacy and discourages free speech and free association. These are all human rights too.

Sadiq pointed out several times how Labour got it wrong on human rights. But despite Edward Snowden’s revelations, he still thinks RIPA is a “great” law. If Labour want to be radical supporters of human rights in Government again, they need to prepare to reform RIPA.

GCHQ shouldn’t be allowed to hoard everyone’s data with little oversight. The police and intelligence agencies would be better off targeting suspected criminals. And it’s Parliament’s job to hold them to account when they make mistakes.

It’s great news that Sadiq Khan’s pushing for Labour to regain its radicalism on human rights. But human rights include the right to privacy. It’s important Labour doesn’t forget that.


Ed Paton-Williams is a Labour member and works as a campaigner at Open Rights Group. He writes here in a personal capacity. Find him on Twitter at @edpw or on his blog https://edpw.wordpress.com

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Reader comments


1. Shatterface

In front of an Unlock Democracy debate in Parliament, he rightly praised Labour’s first term successes – The Human Rights Act, freedom of information and the Supreme Court. But Labour later “got the balance wrong” on citzens’ freedom and security.

Labour’s idea of ‘balance’ was to put a mouse-sized freedom on one side of the scales, then drop an elephant-sized security right on top of the mouse, then taser the elephant into dancing a jig on the bloody mouse pulp.

In front of an Unlock Democracy debate in Parliament, he rightly praised Labour’s first term successes – The Human Rights Act, freedom of information and the Supreme Court. But Labour later “got the balance wrong” on citzens’ freedom and security.

Senior Labour politicians went on to openly regret those “successes”. Not to mention undermining them with subsequent legislation.

3. Richard Carey

There are two political parties: the In Party and the Out Party. Members of the Out Party often claim they care about civil liberty. History teaches that the appropriate response is sneering cynicism.

Rarely do politicians seek to place limits on state power. They almost always want to keep power unlimited and discretionary, and merely quibble over what discretionary violations of our rights are appropriate at any given time.

4. Charlieman

@OP, Ed Paton-Williams : “RIPA lets British intelligence agencies tap the world’s Internet data as it reaches British shores. GCHQ stores all that data for 3 days and the information about where you are, who you contact and which sites you visit for 30 days.”

I think it is unwise to take the news reports about Snowden’s revelations too literally. It is especially unwise to translate outlines of capability described in a PowerPoint slide into the operating practices of GCHQ.

The descriptions of Tempora (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/jun/21/gchq-cables-secret-world-communications-nsa) require that GCHQ is storing data in quantities that would impress Google and Facebook. I cannot believe that GCHQ caches all European Lolcat images, just in case one is being used for steganography. Capturing the data is technically straightforward, storing it is a headache and analysing it is gobsmackingly impressive.

Whatever the spooks are up to is disturbing, but Snowden’s revelations do not contain enough detail to determine how the snooping works.

” he rightly praised Labour’s first term successes – The Human Rights Act…”

A ‘success’? The HRA has massively benefited lawyers and an assortment of murderers, rapists and terrorists. The people who have suffered the downside of this ‘progress’ have been law-abiding members of the public. Thanks for letting us know which side you stand on, Ed.

There is so much BS around the issue of spying and eavesdropping surveillance that it has now become tediously boring. I genuinely can’t work out if the outraged are just incredibly naive or have lived sheltered lives. States spy on each other to try and gain an advantage for their side. Outrageous is the cry of the surprised. Look, states have spied on each other since any semblance of a state existed. They will always spy on each other because it is about power and rivalry. Anywhere that power accumulates whether it is politics or business will either spy or have ambitions to spy on those they perceive as rivals. Even major sports teams do it.

The UK government and major UK firms have spied for each other since colonial times in a symbiotic relationship. The likes of BP pass on information that may be of use to the government and vice versa. The five eyes partnership of the anglosphere merely extended to five countries an understanding that always existed in the UK. As much as I care about civil liberties I find it hard to get worked up about states spying on each other.

Moving on to the states monitoring and surveillance of the rest of us. Well of course they do. Did anyone seriously doubt that the state would not use the WWW and internet to advantage themselves? It is not because I do not care about these civil liberties issues that I am cynical about the outrage. It is because there are more everyday actual restrictions and nannying on us that ought to concern people compared to whether the state has the ability to monitor our email. If the UK security services want to monitor my email they will do it no matter what MPs pass in parliament.

Mindlessly authoritarian mis managers who semi-competently tick boxes solely to cover their ideologically hogtied sphincters, and implement what might be a good idea with an eye poppingly moronic level of competence.
They will be the schizophrenic patsies of billionaire bribe masters!

That is what their laws mean….

8. So Much For Subtlety

RIPA lets British intelligence agencies tap the world’s Internet data as it reaches British shores.

Frankly I do not see why anyone should care if the British government violates some Nigerians’ privacy. Because that is what we are talking about here. They are not listening to our phone calls. They are listening to foreigners’.

The fake shrill notes of outrage over this are pathetic. This has been common knowledge for at least a generation. Since I were a lad and they were tapping the telegraph cables even. Look up ECHELON.

And yes everyone does it. The Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, the French as it turns out. And even the Swiss: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onyx_(interception_system)

Why shouldn’t they? I assume we all agree they should listen out for evidence of a nuclear or conventional attack on Britain, right? Well, what else should they listen out for? Terrorism obviously. So what are they doing that is so wrong?

9. Richard Carey

@ Richard W,

I understand your world-weariness and indeed the ‘revelations’ should come as no surprise. However, the nannying and restrictions on our lives which you object to are related to the surveillance, firstly because the surveillance gives them a potent tool to nanny and restrict, and secondly because it reinforces the underlying authoritarian principle that we have no right to privacy and are not free individuals but rather drone subjects of the panopticon state.

There is also this distinction: states have always committed crimes, but now they are committing them openly in our faces. In the Bush/Obama era they actually admit to torture and extra-judicial killing. This is not a positive development.

10. Man on the Clapham Omnibus

8. So Much For Subtlety

‘The fake shrill notes of outrage over this are pathetic. This has been common knowledge for at least a generation’.

So why is Snowden in trouble if everyone already knows about it?

The Germans dont seem that happy and I dont think that it is staged. Moreover it isnt just nuclear attack its economic advantage amongst Countries that are meant to have partnerships and be allies.

What it is is the action of the arrogant US that thinks it owns everthing and everybody.

11. Man on the Clapham Omnibus

9. Richard Carey

‘firstly because the surveillance gives them a potent tool to nanny and restrict’

and why would that want to do that?

12. Paul peter Smith

There is something in the article to pleased about though, a politician actaully conceded that a negative right (the right to privacy) may have some worth. A recurring feature of Human Rights legislation and its interpretation is that they place greater emphasis on the importance of positive right’s over negative right’s. But surely that’s good right? Negative things are bad and positive things are good aren’t they? Negative rights include such crimes against humanity as the right to life and liberty, the right to privacy and to keep the products of your labour. Positive rights include a rapist’s right to a family life, a terrorist’s right to not be terrorised by the people they are trying to terrorise and our right to pay for foerign language services for people who want to live here but not actually bother learning the language.

13. Richard W

I take on board your points but it really comes down to why I am a pragmatic liberal and you are a libertarian. Quite simply from my perspective you are taking on large battles that you cannot win. You are not gong to defeat authoritarians by asking them nicely to not use the technology that they have at their fingertips. Surely it is better to ignore the large battles and concentrate on constrainting the authoritarians by winning the small battles that actually affect people? Big battles seem divorced from everyday experience but it is the little stuff that people can relate to.

There are folks on this site only too happy to pretend to be outraged by state spying. Yet the same people want the state to decide which shelves magazines should be sold from. They want puritan authoritarians to decide how many bookmakers should be on the High St. They want the state to tell us how much we should drink, smoke, shag, what chemicals we can stick up our nose and how much fruit and veg we should eat. The point I am making probably badly is you will not defeat other than through outright anarchy the surveillance state. The internet exists and as many opportunities it creates for spreading information it also creates a mechanism of control. Therefore, I don’t get all upset that the state has the ability to spy on me, in fact, I don’t care. I accept it as reality and would prefer the liberals to take on the authoritarians in the everyday stuff.

14. So Much For Subtlety

10. Man on the Clapham Omnibus

So why is Snowden in trouble if everyone already knows about it?

Because he is a traitor who broke the law? Which is why the Americans want him arrested and why the Left loves him. It has nothing to do with what he says.

The Germans dont seem that happy and I dont think that it is staged. Moreover it isnt just nuclear attack its economic advantage amongst Countries that are meant to have partnerships and be allies.

Allegely economic advantage. Merkel should ask what her intelligence does. Because if the French and Swiss do it, German e-mail is being read and the Germans probably do it too.

What it is is the action of the arrogant US that thinks it owns everthing and everybody.

Anything you broadcast is by definition public. It does not matter if the Americans read it or not. Someone will. It is absurd to think otherwise. Your comment simply points to your irrational hatred, nothing anything useful or contructive.

What it is is the action of the arrogant US that thinks it owns everthing and everybody.

Anything you broadcast is by definition public.

A private conversation by say email or phone is by definition not a broadcast.

16. Paul peter Smith

Have you noticed the spin on the headline? ‘Labour should care not just for human right’s but for our privacy…..’
Obviously the good rights are Human rights and we need those without question, or examination with any kind of common sense! But because ‘we’ are inclusive, opportunistic moral relativist’s we are going to throw a bone to the actual right’s of human’s.

17. Paul peter Smith

Richard W
No your not explaining it badly, its very similar to many peoples attitude to torture. No one thinks its ok to torture innocent people but its sometimes necessary to torture guilty people, isnt that the US & UK’s basic position? The trick you have to pull off is to be able to determine innocence or guilt, percectly, and be certain that the man with the pliers is only doing what HAS to be done for the sake of the children.
The excuse that ‘they’ need to violate our real HUMAN’S right by spying on us in real time to protect our human rights is not so far removed from the idea of taking up smoking to lose weight. Yes you achieve results but at what price?


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