Recent Civil liberties Articles



The right to insult all religions is important, and should be cherished

by Sunny Hundal     January 26, 2014 at 12:10 pm

The first time I was invited on to a debate on TV, I was so nervous I couldn’t stop myself shaking. It was partly nerves and partly the topic. It was Christmas 2005, and a theatre in Birmingham had to abandon a play because a large mob of angry Sikhs had gathered in protest outside, and some had broken the windows. All this because they said it insulted their religion.

Of course, the play – Behzti (‘shame’) – didn’t insult Sikhism, it merely depicted rape in a Gurdwara (temple) on stage. Self-appointed community leaders were aghast and spread rumours that the writer, a Sikh woman, was 1) an attention seeker 2) had a black boyfriend and wanted to deliberately insult Sikhs 3) wasn’t really a Sikh. I wrote angry editorials (as editor of the industry journal Asians in Media mag, then) that Behzti should not be shut down and angry Sikhs should learn to live with perceived insults to their faith. The play got shut down because the theatre and the local police were too scared to stand up to fundamentalists.

There have been plenty of controversies since, involving British Hindus and Muslims too.

The latest one involves Maajid Nawaz, a Lib Dem candidate and head of the anti-terrorism think-tank Quilliam Foundation, who tweeted a picture of the Jesus & Mo cartoons, which depicts both figures as stick drawings. Some Muslims are outraged and want Maajid de-selected. One of the instigator, another self-appointed ‘community leader’, boasted that he would inform Islamic countries in the Middle East about Nawaaz. It doesn’t get more comical than this.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt: it’s that most religious Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in Britain still don’t understand freedom of speech. They pay lip service to free speech, of course, but the minute they feel their religion is being insulted, they want to see it censored. I’m not referring to ordinary people here – I’m referring to the ones who are more religious than normal. They are the ones who go the extra effort of mobilising others to be offended.

Let me be blunt.

If you appreciate the freedom to practice religion, then you should embrace freedom of speech.

If you appreciate the fact that Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims broadly have the same right as Christians, then you should embrace freedom of speech.

If you think people shouldn’t be locked up for expressing fringe and perhaps unpopular opinions, then you should embrace free speech.

And yes, all of these mean you have to accept the right of others to say things you may find hurtful or insulting to your religion. That’s how it works.

You cannot have a relatively free society without the freedom to insult and antagonise religious people. You cannot create a well functioning secular society without the right to insult religion. Otherwise, you end up like Pakistan, which plans to execute a mentally ill British man for being ‘blasphemous’.

I’m not saying Christians understand this fully (the Daily Mail constantly whines about insults to Christian sensibility); neither am I saying that non-religious Brits have this nailed down (people have been harassed for saying offensive things or just making jokes).

I am saying that minorities should be especially pro-free-speech, because when freedom of speech is curtailed, it is used against minorities first. And that freedom speech does and should always include the right to insult religion and religious figures.

You have a right to be offended.

You don’t have a right to censorship. You don’t have the right to shut down a play, close down an exhibition, stop a book being sold, or stop someone from speaking peacefully or holding a demo. And yes, that includes the likes of the EDL.

I’m really sick of some people acting like village thugs and demanding people listen to them because they feel insulted. No. No one cares if you feel hurt, especially if its over your religion. The rest of us don’t care how important it is to you – the right to insult and have free speech is far more important.

At the time of the Behzti play controversy, I was invited to a debate on BBC Asian Network where some Sikh ‘human rights’ organisation claimed they were going to sue the writer (herself a Sikh!) for inciting violence against Sikhs. I kid you not. I laughed in their face, on radio. That is how seriously these people should be taken. Their proposed plan never got anywhere of course.

Is Sadiq Khan right to say that Labour is now the party of civil liberties?

by Robert Sharp     September 20, 2013 at 9:05 am

Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked of predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.

Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite.

For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:

And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.

If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.

Meanwhile, at the Liberal Democrat annual conference, delegates have approved motion F41 [PDF], a reaffirmation of their party’s committment to human rights and the Human Rights Act.

These debates make me happy. What Khan and McNally’s comments show is that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have begun to see the promotion of human rights as a vote winner. This is by no means a given in British politics, and not something to be taken for granted.

Regardless of Labour’s past failures, or the Liberal Democrats’ current, shaky record in office, we should still applaud these commitments to protect the Human Rights Act.

The alternative is the gutting or abolition of the Act, and a withdrawl from the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Conservatives are threatening to do (David Cameron even had a populist pop at the idea of human rights in a conference speech before he became Prime Minister).

When a politician speaks out in defence of human rights, the public need to show their approval of such statements and publicise them widely.

Who knows, if the politicians see that such positions are a vote winner, we may find that Nick Clegg is inspired to fight a little harder for rights and liberties in this parliament… and that Secretary of State Sadiq Khan is emboldened to defend and extend human rights in the next.

A terrifying attack on our civil liberties is going through Parliament

by Guest     August 6, 2013 at 9:30 am

by Jonathan Lindsell

A piece of legislation that is going through Parliament is rather alarming. It has passed ‘committee stage’, meaning it’s close to becoming law.

It is all the closer, since no major media organisations have made a peep about it. And the Liberal Democrats haven’t complained, so presumably they are down with it.

Either way, we failed to notice progress of the daunting Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.

Summary
– The replacement of the ASBO will be harsher and easier for the authorities to serve
– The replacement of the Dispersal Order will be harsher, longer lasting and easier for the authorities to serve
– These, together with recent government moves (below) represent a genuine threat to UK freedoms, not least the right to protest and right to assembly

What’s in the bill?
The bill is massively wide, and its whole contents are not discussed here. The two most worrisome things are:
– Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs)
– Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs)

IPNAs
IPNAs will replace the Daily Mail’s old favourite, the ASBO (Anti Social Behaviour Order), which was widely abused by the authorities and often failed to do much good. The government’s justification is that the new law will simplify New Labour’s populist anti-chav measure.

This version, however, is worse. ASBOs could only be issued when a yob/hoodie/hoodlum had done something wrong – caused ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.

As Scriptonite Daily points out, IPNAs require only that you might ‘engage in behaviour capable of causing annoyance’. This is FEROCIOUSLY WIDE AND FUZZY.

Public Spaces Protection Orders
These are theoretically designed to stop people letting their dogs shit everywhere or to keep loud drunks off quiet streets. But PSPOs suffer from the same hopelessly wide scope as IPNAs. They can pop up, pre-emptively, to halt ‘activities carried on or likely to be carried on in a public place will have or have had a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’ [Clause 55, 2., a-b].

PSPOs can apply for three years, then be renewed, and renewed, and renewed. According to The Manifesto Club, PSPOs will be easier to serve than current alcohol protection zones, and can be legally targeted at specific groups (e.g. ethnicities, protesters, horse racing enthusiasts). If you breach a PSPO you are subject to an on-the-spot fine of up to £100 which could go up to £1,000 on conviction, plus £500 if booze is involved (Summary part 152).

What are the implications?
It’s pretty obvious that these powers would give the police and local authorities a terrifying power to disperse peaceful protest movements. Worse, the filth could ban you pre-emptively, effectively ruining your right to protest and your right to assembly.

This is especially shit in the light of two related developments. Edward Snowden’s data-spying leaks have shown us that the UK government, MI5 and the police have access to virtually all our internet use and history. And have the capacity to sift it all. And have the precedent to suggest they will abuse such a power. This means I’m pretty afraid of one or other arm of government spying on (legal) discussions of political protest or opposition, then banning the people or groups planning to take to the streets (legally).

I’m also worried by the general climate the government is setting in the past few months. If it isn’t the TEMPORA/SocMint spying revelations, or abuses against Steven Lawrence’s family and friends, then there’s:
Racist Van and the Home Office’s Hunger Games style live-feed of migrant arrests and asylum denials
– Cameron’s Porn Crusade [My analysis and links here]
– The Tories’ attempts to make it virtually impossible to take employers to court
– Chris Grayling’s universally-panned smash and grab job on the criminal justice system…
– And legal aid…
– And appeals
Pipeline legislation that will allow serious criminals to be kept in 5” x 5” cages, out in the open, with signs encouraging members of the public to masturbate or defecate onto them.

What can I do?
You could sign some petitions. There’s this Government website one and this Change.org one. Might as well hit up the 38degrees.com petition against TEMPORA while you’re at it.

Better – write to your MP. Write to the MPs you think tend to stand for fluffy things like ‘justice’ and ’rights’ and ask what the fuck is going on. Ask why, in committee, the words ‘protest’ and ‘assembly’ did not come up. Ask whether this thundercunting debacle is possibly just an honest, massive oversight.


A longer version of this post was published here.
Jonathan is a writer and Civitas thinktank researcher.

The campaign against porn-blocking is failing because it doesn’t appeal to mums

by Sunny Hundal     July 30, 2013 at 8:30 am

There is a vociferous campaign against proposals to force ISPs to have opt-in rather than opt-out filters for pornography. It is also a campaign that doesn’t seem to be making much headway.

In fact, when I tweeted against it about a week ago, I was surprised to hear back from so many liberal-lefties who supported Cameron’s plans. Most of them were concerned mothers.

This is reflected in the press too. Late last week Deborah Orr wrote in the Guardian:

Frankly, it’s irksome to me that I’ve had to write this piece, which is essentially an appeal for calm in a climate that says, with a baffling disregard for the view of the vast majority, that the right to porn must be universal and that access to it must be protected from all possible inhibitions. Maybe Cameron’s idea is a lame duck. Let’s face it, they usually are. But the level of indignation over the fact that the prime minister is even thinking along these lines is weird.

In the Sunday Times Elearnor Mills said something similar.

This illustrates why the anti-porn-block campaign is failing: their primary argument is about free speech. ORG’s petition for example is titled ‘David Cameron: Stop Sleepwalking the UK into Censorship‘.

I’ll be brutally honest – this isn’t going to work. The supporters of the block don’t care for free speech in this case. They are worried about how easy access to porn is skewing the way young boys see women and sexual activity. In other words they don’t want their sons, or those of others, to grow up as sex pests.

This is a reasonable concern. And Cameron is directly addressing those concerns even if people aren’t sure that his plans will work.

There’s literally no point crying free speech or censorship if you’re arguing against these proposals. You’re preaching to the converted then. You’re preaching mostly to men.

The campaign should re-focus entirely and respond differently.

1) Accept there are legitimate concerns about how porn affects young boys and men young people generally. Argue for a broader effort to counter this impact and follow it up with ideas and proposals (in conjunctions with women’s groups).

2) Explain how the proposals won’t work, technically.

3) Argue that it will only breed complacency with parents, many of whom will think they don’t need to worry after this when nothing will change in most cases. So the problem may actually get worse.

4) Say the focus should be instead on teaching Sex and Relationship Education. Point out that by focusing on porn-blocking the government is actually avoiding talk and action on SRE. Of course, it is not a matter of either/or – but in this case it looks like it. Cameron argues that he is pushing these proposals to stop the increased sexualisation of our society but this is a panacea; it won’t do much to help boys develop a healthy attitude towards women. Pushing this allows him to say that he is trying his best, without pushing something that actually works. Once again, it may make things worse by putting SRE on the back burner.

Some of these points are already made by some groups – and I don’t mean to single out ORG – but for most the key argument against this is on censorship. I don’t think that argument works because it does not appeal to mothers.


(Of course, I’m making generalisations about mothers here, but I don’t think exceptions invalidate the rule)

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

by Guest     July 4, 2013 at 3:06 pm

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

Why are MPs so scared to ask questions of our security services?

by Septicisle     July 2, 2013 at 10:50 am

The Intelligence and Security Committee wants to be taken seriously. We know this because in its previous incarnation it was regarded as a bit of a joke, producing reports so ridiculously censored that its existence was a waste of everyone’s time.

It was lied to repeatedly by the intelligence agencies, and when it wasn’t being lied to it was more than happy to change the very meaning of words in order to clear those it was meant to be monitoring of any involvement in little things like extraordinary rendition.

When it then postpones the very first occasion on which it was meant to be questioning the heads of the security services because “it’s too busy”.

This means it almost certainly won’t be rescheduled until October once the summer recess is done and the party conferences are over. Firstly you smell a rat, and secondly it makes a mockery of the new powers it has received.

As the Guardian almost incredulously reports, surely Thursday would have been a great opportunity to question those who normally prefer the shadows – both on whether more could have been done to prevent the murder of Lee Rigby (there’s MI5 involvement with Michael Adebolajo) and on the revelations about GCHQ’s spying on the G20 meetings and alleged tapping of the country’s main fibre optic cables via Project Tempora.

Frankly, who knows whether it was the committee or the agencies that decided they simply couldn’t be quizzed on TV when interest would have been high.

No, far better to let everything calm down, the accusations against GCHQ to be pushed to the back of minds, and then allow John Sawers and Andrew Parker to be extremely lightly grilled at some point in the future.

Taking into account that the trial of Adebolajo and Adebowale has been set for the 18th of November, it wouldn’t surprise if the heads either refused to answer questions on the Woolwich murder in light of the trial, or if the session was pushed even further back.

Regardless of the reality, the ISC is hardly convincing that it is up to the job it’s been set, and that’s just the way that the spooks like it.

Why has it taken this long for a call to look at the Police’s undercover activities?

by Jenny Jones AM     June 25, 2013 at 3:28 pm

I hope the news that the Metropolitan Police sent undercover police to spy on the Stephen Lawrence family becomes the turning point in the on-going spy cops scandal.

It’s surprising it has taken until now for broad calls for a public inquiry. Why not when we first discovered undercover police officers had been having long-term intimate relationships with activists as a tool for gathering information? What about all the other victims of police spies?

The Met had a unit that stole the identities of dead babies, apparently withheld information from a judicial inquiry and used sex as a tool to gain information and cover from innocent women.

Plus, we already have a fresh set of allegations that police spies infiltrated campaigns against police corruption. The sorry saga of perverted and possibly illegal undercover policing needs a public inquiry to get to the truth, or as much of it as we can.

There are currently between 12 to 15 inquiries or reviews looking into different aspects of the murky world of police spies.

The time has come for one judicial inquiry to look at all the allegations, including the crimes Mark Kennedy committed in Germany, Bob Lambert authoring the McLibel leaflet, fathering children with the women they spied on and the allegations about the firebombing of Debenhams raised under Parliamentary privilege.

There must be senior Ministers who are open to the inquiry idea, in the same way that the Met Commissioner appears to be.

It’s been 20 months since the Met launched Operation Herne, their own investigation into undercover policing, but the Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee are yet to be told how many matters have been referred to the IPCC for investigation, how many cases the CPS are looking at, if any disciplinary action has been taken against officers, or if these officers are still supervising undercover operations.

There are 23 officers and 10 staff working on the case, but there have been no arrests and the Home Secretary only heard about the alleged smearing of the Lawrence family via the media.

A judicial inquiry, unlike the internal police investigation and Tom Ellison QC’s review, would allow the victims of undercover operations – the women, the children of officers, the parents whose children’s identities were stolen and the Lawrences – a voice in this process.

They could tell their side of the story and see those responsible held to account in public for their actions and decisions.

PS, I will be questioning the Commissioner about undercover policing at Thursday’s meeting of the Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee.
I will also be speaking in the Speakers Forum, Green Futures Field of Glastonbury at 3pm on Saturday.

What if the police infiltrated left groups not for the state but for corporations?

by Guest     June 25, 2013 at 9:20 am

by Jonathan Kent

So the leaflet at the centre of the McDonalds libel trial was co-written by Bob Lambert, an undercover police officer who later apologised to the “law abiding members of London Greenpeace,” which he described as a peaceful campaigning group.

Likewise Mark Kennedy/Stone, who couldn’t fathom what threat the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station protesters he’d infiltrated posed. The judge trying one group of Ratcliffe protesters praised their public spiritedness. Doesn’t anyone else think it odd that the state spends millions of pounds infiltrating annoying, but mostly harmless, groups of hippies?

It makes no sense, until you stop to consider what happens to the surveillance data.

Simon Jenkins, in The Guardian, noted that Stone/Kennedy was working for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit whose chain of command lead to the Association of Chief Police Officers.

But ACPO isn’t a statutory body. It’s a private company and, according to Jenkins, it sold data to other private companies. It’s when you start to think about surveillance as a business that infiltrating peaceful, democratic green / leftist / anti-capitalist groups starts to make sense. There’s a market for surveillance data and demand drives supply.

Ask yourself this: who might buy data about far-right groups or militant ‘Islamists’ who represent a threat to public safety and the state? The answer, surely, is the state, and the state has tight budgets and a security apparatus of its own.

But who would buy information about greens, democratic leftists and assorted anti-capitalists? Big business has limited security apparatus of its own, deep pockets and, if protesters threaten the bottom line, the corporation’s motive-of-motives; money.

So the question is not ‘why spend so much infiltrating peaceful protest groups?’ but ‘just how far have our security priorities been distorted by the market for information?’ The more it becomes about money the less it becomes about national security and the more about protecting financial interests.

Now think about all this in the context of the Snowden revelations about PRISM and GCHQ.

Once we stood up for our liberties. Indeed millions donned uniforms and fought, were wounded or were killed in their defence. Now all it takes is one or two savage attacks on our streets and we’re prepared to throw away everything our forebears gave their lives for.

But we live in a different world where power is inexorably seeping away from our elected representatives who, however flawed they may be, are ultimately accountable to us. And power is flowing equally inexorably towards corporations – unaccountable, faceless and legally constituted to be amoral; uninterested in right and wrong only in serving their shareholders’ interests. PRISM benefits them.

What is at stake is not different ideas of right and wrong, right-wing morality versus left-wing morality, it’s whether we have a world in which morality plays any significant part at all.

Overwrought? Two weeks ago suggestions of an all-seeing, all-encompassing surveillance state across the Western democracies might have seemed equally so. But PRISM exists and so do real threats to the very fabric of society.

Our forebears were prepared to give their lives to stop this sort of thing. What are we prepared to give?


Jonathan Kent blogs here.

The Guardian’s “treachery” and silence across the rest of the British media

by Septicisle     June 21, 2013 at 8:30 am

On Monday, the Guardian ran an extraordinary story, detailing how GCHQ had spied on delegates at two G20 summits in London in 2009. It made clear how even those regarded as allies had had their emails intercepted.

Justified on the grounds of defending “economic well-being”, a clause included in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, it was really something far more mundane: an attempt to gain any sort of advantage in the negotiations.

Considering how much the right-wing press love Gordon Brown, you might have thought that the Guardian’s revelations would have had a significant impact. But no. With the exception of a couple of follow-ups, it seems most of the rest of the media wasn’t interested.

Nor were they taken with the Guardian’s live Q&A session with Edward Snowden. With the exception of an attack piece in the Mail by Stephen Glover, nor has there been any real criticism of the paper for what Glover calls “treachery”.

Roy Greenslade wonders why this is the case. The most obvious answer, it seems, is that the D-Notice committee issued a polite note to editors after the first tranche of stories were given wide coverage. If ever there was an example of the warning off of editors from publishing anything else, quite clearly this it.

All the same, as Dominic Ponsford writes, this doesn’t explain why the media didn’t bother to follow up the Guardian’s stories. Once the Guardian had breached the order, which is voluntary, the information was in the public domain and so there was no reason for the rest of the media to continue to abide by the order, as indeed happened once the news of Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan became public.

It also can’t be that the Guardian is now viewed as beyond the pale, else the original reports on the NSA wouldn’t have been covered in the detail that they were.

It’s more, as we’ve seen, that the security services are the one part of the state that tends to get a free pass from both right and left. Where the left tends to have a blind side when it comes to the NHS and the right often seems to think the police can do no wrong, both seem to be overwhelmed by how “keeping us safe” trumps civil liberties and basic accountability every time.

William Hague in the Commons didn’t even attempt to seriously engage with the questions about how GCHQ worked with the NSA on Prism, he just said everything was hunky dory, and that was enough for both politicians and the press.

It is, as Greenslade writes, remarkable that the press that makes so much of its independence from the state and raises hell at the threat of regulation finds so little to worry about when it comes to the darkest reaches of government.

Why digital technology poses a problem for surveillance law

by Guest     May 2, 2013 at 9:30 am

by Peter Sommer

In the wake of the Government’s proposed ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, Open Rights Group ask why intrusive new laws are being suggested, if they are needed at all and what the alternatives are. This is an extract from their recent report on the matter.

Surveillance is part of our security policy. Some politicians will have you believe that there is only one aim: to keep people, institutions and the community safe.

But there are two others: to protect the essential values of society (freedom of speech, open and fair judicial processes, right to dissent, privacy such that the state only intrudes when provably necessary), and to deliver value for money.

Surveillance law is about balancing competing objectives, not absolutes. But for lazy politicians it seems simpler to use the scare language of paedophilia, terrorism and “lives lost” than to make the nuanced arguments of managing risks.

There are particular problems in getting to grips with how far surveillance capabilities and technologies have changed – and the implications.

Over 80% of the UK population has access to the Internet from home and each UK household on average owns three Internet-enabled devices, all creating digital records.

All mobile phones will contain some records of calls made and received and copies of SMSs made and received. While the phone is switched on, it constantly re-registers its presence with the nearest mast; this archive of an individual’s detailed movements is retained for 12 months.

At the same time the availability of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) has expanded greatly, in terms of the quantity of cameras and quality of images. The national DNA database is one of the world’s largest, with profiles on an estimated 5,570,000 individuals.

Police operate a national automatic number plate recognition system (ANPR), which by March 2011 was receiving 15 million sightings daily. A national fingerprint database contained 8.3m individuals’ prints in April 2010. The Oyster card is another method for tracking movements of people in London.

At the same time, commercial companies have built up their databanks. Some companies – Google, Facebook, twitter – base almost their entire business on acquiring and then monetising personal data.

Once all data is digital, software can combine and produce visualisations; the more data there is, the greater the granularity of the resulting analysis – and the greater the intrusion, far more than was ever envisaged when necessity and proportionality tests were applied to the original streams of evidence.

The practical problems for politicians are extensive.
· It is much easier to make incremental legal patches than fundamental changes. It is also easier for promoters to claim that a proposed change is almost negligible – “maintaining capability”.

· Legislators need knowledge of how investigations take place, the techniques and resources used and where the costs occur.

· Legislators need knowledge of the technical capabilities of surveillance technologies. Law enforcers will say they are reluctant to provide detail in public for fear of alerting their targets.

· A similar need for secrecy is invoked when there are public demands for detailed breakdowns of costs.

· Legislators need to understand the nature and extent of the threats surveillance laws are meant to mitigate. If we take the last time anyone died from terrorism, 2005, when “7/7” occurred with 52 victims, in that particular year you were over 61 times more likely to die in a road crash and 72 times more likely to incur a fatality in the home than to be killed in a terrorist atrocity. There has been approximately one serious terrorist attempt per year since then, all so far caught in time because the processes of sourcing material, establishing a bomb factory and recruiting personnel all create risks of detection for the actors.

Law enforcement and security agencies are expected to deliver public safety and successful prosecutions against budgets for resources and powers, which they will regard as inadequate. If politicians use the language of absolutes as opposed to managing risk, police and the security services do likewise.

Police and the security services follow the same course as all lobbyists: exaggerate and demand more than they need. And there is a particular advantage in doing so. In the wake of a large disaster that they have been unable to prevent, they are able to point to an audit trail of requests for powers and resources denied.

And politicians know this.


Peter Sommer is currently a Visiting Professor at De Montfort University and a Visiting Reader at the Open University. His research interests and publications include cyber security, cyberwarfare and the reliability of digital evidence.


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