Recent Civil liberties Articles



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.

How the Conservatives are trying to wreck the Defamation Bill

by Helen Goodman MP     April 12, 2013 at 8:23 am

One of key reasons for the introduction of the Defamation Bill was to protect journalists and small publication from being harried by large corporations.

The problem with defamation law has been particularly stark in relation to scientific articles.

We have seen numerous cases – Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre to name just two – where science writers have been sued for libel relating to articles that are patently part of the scientific debate.

To tackle this Labour moved amendments to tackle this problem in the House of Commons. These amendments were sadly defeated by the government.

Happily these amendments were re-tabled when the Bill made its way to the House of Lords and were passed with Cross-bench support.

These amendments will raise the bar for corporations to bring a claim of defamation. This is entirely right because, contrary to what Mitt Romney may have said, corporations are not people.

Too often libel law is used by corporations as a way to suppress negative publicity – this must change.

Unfortunately the battle is yet to be won. Edward Garnier, the former Tory Solicitor General, has now tabled amendments that would remove these amendments from the Bill.

D-Day will be on Tuesday when the Bill returns to the House of Commons to discuss the amendments made by Peers.

Garnier’s amendment must be defeated if this Bill is to do what it was intended to.

The Pro-Palestine protests ARE standing up for free speech

by Guest     March 3, 2013 at 11:01 am

by Josiah Mortimer

Though billed as a ‘public’ event, Thursday’s controversial visit to the University of York by the Deputy Ambassador of Israel was anything but. Open to only students and staff, the lecture, ‘Israel and the situation in the Middle East’, was announced less than a week before the event itself, with the location itself given just a couple of days before.

So, contrary to Matt Hill’s analysis on this site, it was in the spirit of free speech that campaigners decided to protest.

The protest was lively, peaceful and upbeat, and never had the intention of shutting down the lecture. Instead, the aim of the dozens there was to ensure the Palestinian’s side of the story was heard, a perspective almost never heard in mainstream media debates or in lecture halls across the country.

Indeed, if the Israeli and the Palestinian causes were given equal treatment, there would be no need last week’s protest. But given no platform to debate with Roth-Snir, we created a platform to ensure the reality was heard – that over half of Palestinians are refugees, that Israel’s 230 illegal settlements devastate the livelihoods of millions of poor Palestinians, and that Gaza is still recovering from last November’s siege by Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 158 Palestinians, many of whom were children.

The true purpose behind the ambassadorial university visits over the past few months has been anything but transparent.

A University of York statement said the Deputy Ambassador “wasn’t invited. The Embassy contacted the University and asked if a representative could speak”. Since Operation Pillar of Defence – the 2012 War on Gaza – Alon Roth-Snir has been touring campuses – the last being the University of Essex, where students there too stood up to attempts to legitimise serious war crimes.

The Deputy Ambassador visits are never debates, are announced at late notice – self-invited – and there is no opportunity for Palestinians’ voices to be heard. The Palestinian Solidarity protest, then, was fundamentally a free speech issue.

Far from a desperate need “for supporters of the Palestinians to take a principled stand against attempts to silence advocates of Israel”, as Hill claims, there’s a much more urgent need for Palestinian supporters to take a stand against the gross freedom of speech violations Israel conducts, and its Ambassadors defend – the more than 4000 political prisoners – including nearly 30 Palestinian MPs, the penalisation of boycott supporters, and the victimisation of pro-Palestinian academics in Israeli universities, among countless more examples.

Pro-Palestinian activists wholly welcome debating with defenders of Israel’s actions. But the Deputy Ambassador’s campus visits come to put forward one side of the story, with little opportunity – save a few token questions – for engagement.


Josiah York is from University of York Palestinian Solidarity Society, and one of the main organisers of the protest.

The Secret Courts Bill is now even more of a threat to British justice

by Guest     February 8, 2013 at 8:50 am

by Donald Campbell

The Government’s plans for secret courts yesterday finished the latest stage in their process through Parliament in an even more dangerous form than before.

Ministers successfully used committee stage to strip out the – already somewhat feeble – safeguards which had been inserted into the Bill by the House of Lords.

What is left is a piece of legislation which gives the government more freedom than ever before to put itself above the law, excluding its opponents from the courtroom altogether by claiming ‘national security’ is involved.

What seems to have often been forgotten in the debate surrounding this Bill is its origins in our own government’s complicity in torture and rendition.

These are not mere allegations. Just under three years ago, one of the most senior judges in the country was warning that MI5 had a “dubious record” on human rights and torture and “an interest in the suppression” of information about the mistreatment of detainees in the so-called War on Terror.

Lord Neuberger, who made these comments then, is now head of the UK Supreme Court. More recently, in a speech coinciding with the passage of the secret courts bill through the Lords, he emphasised that “our commitment to open justice…underpins the rule of law,” and warned that judgements in which reasons are not given – a situation which would result from secret courts – “are certainly not justice at all.

Yet it seems Lord Neuberger’s comments both then and now have either been ignored or forgotten by those in Westminster who support the Secret Courts Bill.

Rather than a real attempt to get to the bottom of our own agencies’ involvement in some of the worse human rights abuses in the ‘War on Terror’ – such as the torture of Gaddafi opponents and the kidnapping and ‘rendition’ of their wives and young children – the Government has brought forward a Bill to help ensure such abuses are unlikely to see the light of day in future.

The Inquiry the Government set up to look into these matters was so toothless and lacking in independence that it had to be shelved due to a lack of support.

Parliament – including the Intelligence and Security Committee – has had the wool pulled over its eyes on rendition and torture before, and there is no reason to assume the future will be any different. This is why accountability of Government through the courts is so indispensable.

Yet with a system weighted in the Government’s favour, where anyone opposing the state will never hear the evidence used against them, this will become near impossible.

This is what will happen if proposals for secret courts make it through the Commons. Ken Clarke and James Brokenshire, the ministers responsible, have shown that they have no interest in compromise by their successful wrecking of the Lords amendments at committee stage.

The only way forward for any MP interested in preserving the rule of law and Britain’s reputation for a fair system of justice is therefore to vote to remove secret courts – or ‘Closed Material Procedures’ – from the Bill altogether.


Donald Campbell is the Communications Officer at Reprieve.

Stephen Pollard’s hypocrisy on offensive cartoons

by Sunny Hundal     February 1, 2013 at 9:15 am

Earlier this week the Jewish Chronicle Editor Stephen Pollard appeared on the Today Programme to criticise the publication of the cartoon in the Sunday Times.

To be clear, I accept that many Jews found the Sunday Times cartoon offensive even if some pointed out it couldn’t be anti-semitic.

But what annoys me are the double-standards.

Here is what Stephen Pollard said on the Today programme:

Oh yes, you have to separate out the difference between the right to publish something, whether there’s a right to be offensive, and whether that means you always have to be offensive, and I don’t think you do.

I think this is an absolute model of how you deal with such a situation. Clearly, there was a mistake made. We’re all human – cartoonists are human, journalists are human, editors are human… The mistake was printing the cartoon. Whether it was Gerald Scarfe’s in drawing it. Whether it was the Sunday Times in printing it. Whatever. It was a mistake.

Clearly he thinks that if some people find such cartoons offensive they shouldn’t be published. He even said the date was immaterial – it shouldn’t have been published at all.

But here is what Stephen Pollard said a few years ago during the Danish cartoons controversy (via @Busty1956):

But they are certainly offensive to a large number of Muslims, as this week’s turmoil shows. But so what? Rather more offensive, one might think, than some mocking cartoons is some Muslims’ desire to murder me as a Jew.

Indeed, in some ways the cartoons were designed as a deliberate challenge. A biographer of Mohammed had lamented the fact that artists were too intimidated to illustrate his book, and the newspaper called for cartoonists who would be willing to have their pictures published. Offensive and unfunny though they might be, they none the less raise legitimate points about the beliefs and behaviour of some Muslims. Is there, for instance, any non-Muslim who does not find the notion of the 76 virgins who await suicide bombers to be both horrifying and amusing?

If free speech means anything, it surely includes the ability to question, and to mock, the belief that Mohammed rewards jihadists, just as it must also include the freedom to stage Jerry Springer – The Opera and the play Dishonour at the Birmingham Rep, against which Sikhs protested last year.

When Muslims find something offensive, Stephen Pollard thinks they raise “legitimate points” about Muslim beliefs. So what if they find it offensive? he asks, it is about free speech right?

But the last paragraph clinches it:

Such is the nature of the fight to defend Western values – half-hearted and supine. The right of a newspaper to publish unfunny cartoons about Mohammed, Jesus or any other religious figure is not a distraction in the defence of freedom from terror. It goes to the very heart of what must be defended.

Ahhh, I get it.

When we are publishing offensive cartoons about Muslims then we are defending Western values, but when we are publishing “grotesque” cartoons about certain Jewish politicians, then a line has been crossed.

The hypocrisy is simply breath-taking.

Using libel laws to deal with internet trolls is a terrible idea

by Robert Sharp     January 29, 2013 at 9:20 am

In the Daily Telegraph, Alasdair Palmer laments trolling and the unpleasant tone of online discourse. He recommends a toughening of the libel laws to deal with this problem.

I think Palmer is mistaken on three counts.

First, he fails to recognise that trolling, anonymity and defamation are three distinct concepts. It is perfectly possible to be an indentifiable ‘troll’. Many newspaper columnists write weekly articles that are almost indistinguishable from trolling, and I am always surprised at just how much hate and bile people are prepared to post in their own names.

Second, most trolling is not defamatory. It is just insulting. The Defamation Bill is exactly the wrong place to deal with trolls and online bullying.

Third, Palmer allows the trolls to become a synedoche for the Internet. As a journalist and columnist writing for a national broadsheet, I am sure that Palmer’s experience of online discourse is pretty unpleasant. But he mistakes a part for the whole. If one were to fly a rocket to Mercury (or even just take a trip to Death Valley) one might induce that “the Universe is very hot”… when in fact these are just pockets of extreme temperatures in a Universe that is on average very cold.

So it is with the Internet, which feels as infinite as the Universe in its breath and depth. The message boards on national newspaper websites are the equivalent of stars in our galaxy – extremes of heat. But as soon as one visits a specialist, local, niche, hobbyist or personal website, the conversation cools. The tone of comments on this blog, for example, is consistently civil.

If we really want to raise the tone of the debate on the Internet, we need not abolish anonymity. We just need to turn off the comment functionality on the big news media websites! They are too big and unweildy to have a proper conversation on anyway. Personally, though, I would advise against such a manoevre: Like big hot stars, the large news sites have a gravitational pull, and draw all the trolls into their orbit, leaving the rest of the Internet a calmer place to explore.

Are Tories trying to kill the Libdem Freedom Bill?

by Sunny Hundal     January 11, 2013 at 10:18 am

The Daily Mail splashes today with a horrified headline: Lower the age of consent to just FOURTEEN, say civil servants… and let’s make nudity on the streets legal too.

Omg, time to panic!!

The context is this: these are proposals supposedly being considered for a ‘Freedom Bill’, which the Libdems are anxious to push over the next two years.

Reading the story it struck me that this looks like an attempt by some Tories to negatively define the Freedom Bill in advance and get it kicked into the long grass.

The quote offered to the Daily Mail clinches it:

But one Tory source said the Prime Minister had been ‘appalled’ to discover that lowering the age of consent had ever been considered.

‘The Liberal Democrats are leading on this Bill and people were in shock. With everything that’s going on with Jimmy Savile, you don’t need more than two brain cells to realise how toxic this is,’ the source said.

‘There is some sensible stuff in the Bill, such as making it easier to get permission for street parties and other public events. How these other ideas even came to be put down on paper is beyond comprehension. They are bonkers and we insisted they were abandoned.’

Lib Dem sources insisted it was ‘categorically untrue’ that the party had ‘in any way been pushing the idea on sexual consent’.

But if the idea had already been abandoned (for clarity: I’m not in favour of lowering the age of consent either) – why is it being briefed to the Daily Mail?

Looks to me like someone wants to strangle the bill at birth.

PS: yes to easier street-parties and raves please.

Why the ‘pleb-gate’ affair should also worry the Left

by Guest     December 20, 2012 at 1:23 pm

by Jonathan Kent

Forget what Andrew Mitchell actually said. Put aside the stubborn suspicion he hasn’t wholly come clean. The damage was done not because he actually said ‘pleb’ but because people found themselves so readily able to believe he did, because it resonated, because it seemed to sum up his party’s attitude. That’s not changed.

This is about the police.

Michael Crick’s Channel 4 report casts serious doubt not just on the police account of events but also raises the possibility that police officers actively conspired to unseat a cabinet minister.

The police log that ascribed the ‘pleb’ remark to Mitchell also claimed that “several members of public [were] present” during the incident. So too did a statement from ‘a member of the public’. The two accounts apparently closely corroborated each other on that and several other details.

Yet CCTV footage seems to show no members of the public outside the gates. It doesn’t even show Mitchell behaving in a way that would lend credence to the reports of a tirade. Of course it would be no surprise if two accounts had tallied if they were founded on the truth, but if two accounts carry very similar false accounts it must raise the strong possibility that, at the very least, that the author of one version had access to the other.

Now we are told not only that the independent witness was not there but that he wasn’t a member of the public. He is apparently a serving police officer.

Furthermore Crick’s report contrasted a recording made by Mitchell of a meeting with Police Federation representatives with their account of the meeting. The comparison certainly seemed to suggest that the Police Federation account misrepresented the meeting in a way that put Mitchell in a very poor light.

When the contents of the police the report were leaked it wasn’t to the Guardian or the Mirror, it was to The Sun. The Sun, already locked in a tussle with the political class, published; not too many questions asked. Together the police and News International took a major political scalp just when they most needed to. It served as a reminder to Downing Street that both could bite back.

Mitchell was one of the less sympathetic figures in a government that no one who believes in social justice had much sympathy for in the first place. So some on the left might be tempted to simply sit back and enjoy the show. That would be a mistake.

No one in politics, left or right, should be anything but deeply disturbed at the possibility that part of the state’s security apparatus is meddling in politics. It was bad enough that police officers and News International journalists apparently conspired to invade the privacy of victims of crime and people in public life alike.

Too often the left has found itself on the rough end of the criminal justice system. From Blair Peach to environmental protesters left pregnant by undercover cops the police have appeared to some to take sides, pursuing their own agenda and that it’s a right wing one.

The possibility that they’re working to bring down our elected representatives is way more worrying.


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